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Seven Steps

By Prema Sastri

They were painting henna on her hands. There were delicate flowers, interwoven with stems, and curling leaves. Her feet were to be done in geometrical patterns. The brush traced designs on her outstretched palm. Around her was a group of women engaged in the same process. Two girls were behind her. They were giggling. She could make out what they were saying.

“Then do you know what he did?’ “What?” “He pulled off my sari, and.” “What?’ “Ssh, she will hear us.” “So,let her. She’ll know about it soon enough!” “Not from me.”

The voices were lowered. They were her cousins, Satya and Meenakshi, both married within the last few months.

The hands were done. Vidya stretched out her foot..

Then what? Suggestive images hovered before her, like the tissue of a bridal veil.

She knew the answer to her question from books, television, one vague class on sex education which had been given in school, and her mother’s mumblings a few weeks before the wedding.

It was presumed that girls knew a lot these days. Many of them did. Her classmates whispered among themselves as they discussed their activities with boys. She caught a word here and there, They fell silent when they saw her. They knew she was ignorant.

What gave her away she could not say. Was it that she had worn pavadas ,the traditional long skirt,where many of the girls wore salwar chemises, the modern Punjabi pant and top. She knew they secretly called her an “ayyo pavam”,or village innocent. Yet may of the so called “ayyo pavams’ appeared knowing, and even patronizing.

She stretched out the other leg to be painted. The foot was long, high arched, the toe nails painted a deep red. The second toes would have silver rings put on them by the bridegroom.

They said it was a sign of subjugation. One of her friends, an ardent feminist, had told her that the wedding ceremonies enforced the right of the man over the woman. The woman was handed over to the man by her father, walked behind him around the sacred fire and ended up with a rope around her neck in the form of a thali chain, the gold chain with symbols, which made a young girl into a married woman. After that she belonged to the husband, as did the cow to the milkman.

The ceremonies were to begin the next morning. Would they mean her death as a person? After the ceremonies what?

She remembered going into a room where her older female cousins were gathered. They did not notice her entry. Bhagya was raising her hands in a dramatic gesture.

“The first night he fell upon me time and again. I did not know what to expect. I was bruised all over.”

There was blood on the sheets, said Ramani. “I did not realize it was mine, I felt I was torn in half.”

I don’t remember anything said Anandi. “I fainted as soon as he came near me.”

They became aware of Vidya and stopped. She left the room.

As she recalled the event a wave of terror swept over her. Was she letting herself in for a lifetime of pain and assault? She thought of the married women she knew. Were they terrorized at night and captive during the day? Their appearance and behaviour told her nothing.

She felt she had been foolish to say yes to Natarajan. The idea of saying no had not occurred to her. He looked like any young man, neither tall nor short, not fair not dark. He was well built. He had a low voice. He had not spoken at the first meeting. After his parents had agreed to the match he came again accompanied by a friend. Vidya was chaperoned by an aunt who kept wandering in and out the room, on some pretext or the other. Her mother engaged herself in sending in a stream of snacks. The meeting had been formal. He had asked a few polite questions. She could not remember her answers.

She was now about to marry this man, a total stranger. She would expose her body to him, allow him to play with it and do his bidding for the rest of her life.

She could not. She would tell her mother to cancel the wedding.

Vidya marched to the room where her mother was sitting, surrounded by silk saris, steel plates, and plastic packets filled with coconuts and betel leaves.

“Cancel the wedding. I can’t go through it.’

“What?” Her mother`s face looked as if somebody had rubbed an ice cube over it.

“I mean it. Tell the groom`s party the wedding is off. I will not marry him.” “"Go to your room. I’ll see you there after I tell your father. He’ll do what is necessary.”

Vidya went to her room. The victory had been easy. Had she been too hasty? She was not by nature an impulsive person. She had taken life as it came. She was an average student, fairly good at sports and not notable for any particular achievment. When she was eighteen and her parents started looking around for a suitable match she did not object. Marriage seemed a welcome change from the monotony of her life.

She had not thought much of the physical aspect. There had been days when she had lain langorously under the fan her legs spread apart, her hands stretched out. The wind had blown her thin sari and caressed her skin. She felt warm all over and imagined there was a man beside her, stroking her face, pressing his body on her.The images never lasted. They were broken by the whack of a bat as her brother played cricket with his friends in the courtyard, or by her mother scolding the maid servant.

She began to regret her sudden decision to cancel the wedding. She had not thought of the consequences,the shame on both families, the needless expense, the future where she would be mocked and railed at by all who met her. She would be regarded as a fool, and a coward. She began to cry.

Her mother came into the room. “Why are you crying? You got what you wanted.” “I don’t know what I want.” “Nor do I. Nor does anyone. That doesn’t mean we break the world around us.” “Is that what I have done?’ “Yes. We will be the laughter of all who know us.Your father would have spent his hard earned money for nothing He has saved for years to give you this wedding.”

“I am sorry.” She cried harder. “I haven’t told your father. Should I?” “No, I’ll go through with it.”

Her mother had already turned towards the door, as if she had expected the answer. Vidya looked at the retreating figure She was sure her mother had not taken her seriously and would never have dared to approach her father with such a shocking command. Had her mother gone through the same fears? She was only sixteen when she was married and had borne her two children before she was twenty. After that she could not conceive. She realized she knew very little about her own mother. She was always in the kitchen, or the prayer room or her music classes. She had never discussed anything with Vidya, nor expressed an opinion on any subject. What relationship did her parents have behind the closed doors of their bed room? She had never thought of it before.

She was woken when it was still dark by her cousin Meenakshi, shaking her.

“Get up lazy bones. Have you forgotten it is your day?”

She got up. She bathed. She wore a purple sari threaded with gold. Her cousin braided her hair with a false plait,embedded with jasmines. She submitted , as a diamond necklace, gold chains and bangles were put on her.

The drums and clarionets had started playing. There was a crowd around the gate which had been decorated with banana plants and flowers.From the window she could see the groom setting out on his `Kashi Yatra`with an umbrella held over his head by his brother. She was unable to see him clearly, as he was surrounded by people. She could not remember his features. On the two occasions she had met him she had kept her head down on her mother’s instructions.

The `Kashi Yatra`, or Benares Travel was a traditional play in which the groom set out to be an ascetic, but was easily persuaded by the bride`s party to give up his plans and marry the daughter of the house.. Vidya had a sudden fear that Natarajan would really go off to Benares, or some other destination, and leave her waiting .

No. He was coming through the gate preceded by all the fanfare of the occasion. He was now before the front steps.Meenakshi, and a retinue of women led her towards him.It was time to exchange garlands. As the priests murmured the incantations she noticed that his bare chest was covered with a fine down of hair. It was also adorned with drops of perspiration.He removed the jasmine garland from his shoulders and put it on hers. It was warm and smelled of his body. In turn she took off a garland and lifted it over his head. She wondered if he could feel her presence in it. Unlikely, as she was swathed in yards of silk sari.

A swing had been set up in the courtyard. The women led her to it. She and Natarajan sat down side by side. She felt a thrill at his nearness. She suddenly remembered a story where the groom had rocked the swing so hard that the bridal pair rolled off, while the boy lay on the floor in an epileptic fit.She stole a sidelong glance at Natarajan to find he was doing the same in her direction. However, he showed no signs of undue energy, as he sat barely moving the swing.

The women had started singing bridal songs.They swirled around her in their phosphorescent silk saris like moving rainbows They threw balls of rice, coloured with turmeric and kum kum,the red powder to ward off evil spirits.. The air held a concotion of smells. Perfume. Flowers. sandalpaste. silk cloth.turmeric. cooked rice. Children ran around in the corners, watching the fun and giggling.Everyone around her was alive and rejoicing. She alone was silent, frozen .When the ceremony was over the bride and groom were led to the sacred fire which was being fed with large spoons of ghee by the priests. The mantras began. The groom repeated them forgetting many of the words. The outcome was the Kanya Daanam or gifting away the girl, when her father would hand her over to her prospective husband.

She sat on her father’s lap.

`My daughter will follow you like a shadow. She will obey you. She will take care of your every need. She will be a friend and companion`…….`

For a moment she was angry. She remembered her feminist friend`s words. ‘Who is one man to hand over a woman to another man?’She looked at Natarajan. The anger disappeared. He appeared eager to receive her..

She had changed into a red nine yards sari. It had been tied on by the groom’s sister. She was sitting before the fire waiting for the knot to be tied. The yellow thread with the thalis was being blessed. The Goddess Lakshmi was invoked to bless the young couple Ancestors on both sides were named,and the complete lineage recounted. The marriage thread with thalis ,the replicas of Siva`s feet was handed to the bridegroom. He stood before her and tied one knot. She felt his hands shaking. He stepped aside. His sister tied two knots from behind The drums and clarionets rose in crescendo. People rained flower petals and rice on them. Vidya was now officially Natarajan’s wife.

There was more to come.They had yet to walk around the fire.Natarajan held Vidya`s hand.He led the way. Vidya followed him as they slowly walked seven steps around the fire. The significance of each step was chanted by the priests. In Vedic times people who walked seven steps together were regarded as lifelong friends and companions .The seven steps sealed their commitment and bound them together, as no ceremony could have done. Vidya felt she had started on an exciting adventure following the man ahead of her..

Well wishers came to greet them and give them gifts. Guests trailed off for lunch.

The reception had been arranged at the Lotus Pond hotel which specialized in wedding arrangements. On the stage there was a backdrop of Krishna and Radha in a rural setting. It was made of fresh flowers. In the background a flute played softly. The guests streamed in. The bride and groom stood centre stage surrounded by video cameras. They had not spoken more than a few sentences to each other all day.

The wedding dinner was over. The last of the guests had departed. Vidya was led to the bridal suite, which had been booked for the night. Before that there had been a short Griha pravesham, or house entering ceremony signifying her leaving her parent`s home, and entering that of her in laws. Prayers and chants had also been offered blessing the first night of the newly weds Vidya had, with all due ceremony, been cut off from her old life and catapulted into an unknown terrain.. Meenakshi, her cousin in attendance, went in with her, looked around to see that everything was in order and left. But not before she had turned to give Vidya a swift look, a look which could mean anything. The door closed.

There was a red velvet bedspread on the cot which smelled faintly of rose water. Garlands of flowers hung from the canopy. Incense had been lit in a stand. All that had gone on so far had been a build up to this moment. Vidya sat on a cushioned chair. She did not know what to do. She felt alone and frightened. Would Natarajan find her attractive? What if some fiasco unheard of and unknown took place? She waited.

It seemed she would wait for ever. At last the door opened and Natarajan came in. He looked around uncertainly, then sat on the chair beside her. He took off his shoes and socks He peeled away his coat and tie. He paused, then stood up and gave her a long look. She had a feeling he was taking in the features of an unknown person. . Was he going to reject her? To her relief he stroked her cheek and started unwrapping her sari. As he did so he rolled backwards, on the bed. She saw he was sound asleep.

She rewound her sari. His legs were dangling on the floor. She lifted them on to the bed and put him in a comfortable position. She could now look at his face, undisturbed. It seemed tired and vulnerable. In sleep he appeared defenceless...

All of a sudden she was struck with a sense of wonder. The whole day had revolved around her. She had been the cause of all the activities. The gathering of people, the priests chanting, the lavish feasting. the decorations, the music. The entire spectacle had taken place to bring her to this man who lay before her. It was as if all the cosmic forces had joined to create this hour.. She knew that she held his life in her hands, as much as he did hers. She no longer feared disrobing and exposing herself. She was part of a divine plan preordained by the Gods.

She remembered he had held her hand as they walked around the sacred fire. As her fingers timidly went into his she felt the warmth of the clasp, and the tremor it had sent through her. She had put her foot on the grind stone, promising not to be unfaithful like Ahalya, who had deceived her the sage who was her husband with Indra king of the Gods. He had looked at the Northern Star,Druva, and sworn he would be constant. They were supported by faith and tradition.

A white nightdress embroidered with flowers had been laid out on a chair.. She slipped it on, took off her false braid and scrubbed the bridal makeup off her face. She pulled back the coverlet and lay on the scented sheets. A wonderland of mystery lay ahead of her..She was going to spend the rest of her life with this man finding out his likes and dislikes, learning to know more about his body and hers; blending her life with his.

She pulled her pillow close to his, turned on her side and curled up with her arm around her husband..