The Face of Courage

by Eva Bell
(Bangalore, India)

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As she walked to work, Meera bit her lip to keep from crying. Her mother had left home before sunrise, to take part in a special “women only” festival called the Siri Jathre. It was a day when women from all over South Kanara gathered at the Siri Temple, poured out their woes before the female deity, and sought solace from each other.

Last night, she had heard her mother Vidya scolding her father.
“Isn’t it time you did something for your daughter?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“She’s going on twenty four, and you still haven’t found her a suitable mate. Girls her age are married and already have a brood of children. People are beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with her. ‘Raghu is so lazy that he can’t be bothered about getting Meera married,’ they say.”
“Don’t you worry about what other busy bodies say. Meera has a good job, and she’s happy at her workplace. She is a great girl and well behaved too. You ought to thank your lucky stars that she is such a gem. Besides, she has passed her matriculation, and there isn’t a boy in this village who is worthy of her.”
“Then look elsewhere. It’s your responsibility. If we don’t get her married by the age of twenty five, I’ll have to cover my head in shame. Tomorrow, I’m off to the Siri temple. I will bawl before the deity that I have an unmarried daughter in the house, and an irresponsible husband who shirks his duty as a father. Let the whole world know of my sorrow.”

For Meera, life had been a constant battle with her mother since childhood. She knew Vidya resented her. She would rather have preferred a have a son. Meera had fought so hard to be allowed to go to school. Then there were more objections when she landed a job.

“You’d be better off if you learnt how to cook and manage the house. You can’t even make a nice cup of tea.”
But Raghu had supported her, and Vidya couldn’t do much about it except to grumble.
“Mother doesn’t hesitate to take my entire pay packet. It has helped make our life more comfortable. Yet she now thinks of me as a burden, to be married off as soon as possible.”
Vidya was illiterate and extremely narrow minded. She had been brought up in a traditional household, where girls were married off as soon as they reached puberty. She was unwilling to change. When Meera decided to wear the popular salwar-kameez to work, Vidya put her foot down firmly.
“If you can’t dress modestly in a sari then you better stay home.”
Meera hoped that marriage whenever it happened would bring freedom from Vidya’s restrictions.

When Vidya came back from the Siri festival she was like one possessed. She had made a costly vow at the temple. Now she pestered and nagged Raghu night and day until he decided something had to be done

He worked as a peon in a neighbouring village, and he spread the word among his friends. He was delighted when he heard about an eligible groom, who was a clerk in a government office.
“We are happy,” said the boy’s father, “We like to have an educated daughter-in-law. My son will have no objections if she works after marriage. So let’s seal the alliance right away.”
Raghu had taken a photo of Meera.
“She’s good looking,” said the father, and passed it to his son for approval. The boy looked pleased.
“Now that you are here, we might as well fix a date. The astrologer is our neighbour. Mind you, we are asking for no dowry.”
“But don’t you want to meet my daughter? Besides, there are so many things we’ll have to discuss. Meera might want to see the boy too.”
“We’ll pass over unnecessary formalities. Your daughter is twenty four you say. We could ask why you waited so long.”

Meera was pleased that her father had found a good groom for her.
“He’s good looking, very respectful and has a decent job.”
She had put by some money in a chit fund towards this day. This would buy her a gold chain and a pair of bangles. She thought it would be nice to present the boy with a silk shirt and a lungi. “With a pink turban, he’ll look very dignified. I hope we’ll be happy together. He must be a good man to have waived the dowry.”

Raghu had taken a small loan from a money lender to give Meera a decent wedding. A pandal had been erected in their courtyard and Vidya with two other women, led Meera to the mandap. Her groom had arrived earlier, and was waiting for her. The pundit had already begun chanting the mantras.

Meera took a sidelong peek at her husband to be. “Not bad,” she thought and smiled to herself. But after a while she looked again.
“There’s something wrong. He’s swaying on his feet and mumbling to himself. Why are his father and uncle whispering in his ear?”

Then suddenly, he turned in her direction and grabbed at her hand. He would have toppled over but for the restraining arm of his father. Meera knew a moment of fear as his bloodshot eyes stared into her face. Then she grew livid.
“Is this the husband you have found for me?” she asked her father. “I will not marry this drunken lout. I’d be better off as a spinster.”
Raghu was equally shocked. He had never delved into the boy’s background.

The chanting of mantras reached a crescendo as the priest realized there was a problem. Meera stripped the veil of flowers covering her face, and threw it into the sacred fire that was burning .Then she marched out of the pandal.
“What have you done? You’ve brought disgrace to the family,” Vidya cried, wringing her hands and running behind her daughter. Several women began to wail “Ayyo. Ayyoyo…Bad luck…bad luck.”

But the men in the group rose as one, ready to lynch the groom and his party.
“Please don’t hurt him,” begged his father, “We thought he would settle down after marriage. That is why we didn’t insist on a dowry.”
“Cheats,” they shouted, “You have dishonoured the daughter of this village. Unless she is well compensated, we will not let you leave.”

Vidya had come back to berate her husband.
“You good- for- nothing man. You couldn’t even find a suitable match for your only daughter.”
“Stop it woman.” Raghu had taken enough from her. “Meera is an intelligent girl and she will find her own husband. You just leave her alone. I’m so glad that we have enough compensation from those rogues to pay back the money lender.”
“What a wasted trip to Siri Mandir,” Vidya sobbed, “I must have committed a grave sin in my previous life.”


The End

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