The Peepal Tree-Part I
by Radha Bantwal
Pallavi had no appetite, but dared not say so. She silently ate up the uppittu and washed it down with a glass of milk. The child in her womb needed it. Her mother-in-law insisted upon it. Pallavi had learnt the hard way that in this house Shanthamma's word was law. And Shanthamma never minced words. "My prayers were finally answered after three years of your barrenness. How much trouble to remove the curse! It was a heavy burden." she grumbled. She went on to enumerate the round of consultations with every doctor and quack in the area, the advice of all the jyotishis she could find and the expensive pujas. Pallavi did not react to this daily recital. As soon as possible, she escaped to the back door and walked down the path towards the quiet of a shady grove. She sat down on a grassy spot under her favourite peepal tree. The trunk offered firm support, while shielding her from prying eyes in the house.
It was a bright morning, pleasantly warm. The dampness of the earth mingled with the fragrance of the flowering shrubs nearby. She listened to the soothing hum of bees and twittering of birds. Occasionally a dog barked or a chicken clucked. She could hear the faint sounds of the estate labourers at work in the distance. Nobody disturbed her during this pleasant morning interlude. Pallavi had come to love the surroundings of her new home. The house - actually, the people in it - made her ill at ease. She slipped out to the peepal tree for some time every day. Under its shelter she felt protected. Leaning against it, she sighed and closed her eyes. "Just a few more months" she consoled herself.
Nagesh and Pallavi got married in Mandya, her home town where she lived a carefree life with her loving parents. They invited half the town to the wedding, doing their best to make it grand. Everyone came to give their blessings and good wishes. Slim and doe-eyed Pallavi, just a few days past her eighteenth birthday, glowed with joy. Her bridegroom Nagesh was the manager of an estate in Chikmaglur. The marriage was arranged in the traditional manner, with negotiations between the elders of the two families. Nagesh’s family had approved her without hesitation. Little did Pallavi know that along with her, a very substantial dowry painstakingly put together by her parents, was going to Chikmaglur. Bowing to the bridegroom’s demands, the entire wedding and honeymoon expenses were borne by her father. Nothing was to be spared for his daughter’s future happiness.
Till the wedding was over, Pallavi had no opportunity to exchange more than a shy smile with Nagesh. After the wedding, Nagesh took her to Mysore for a brief honeymoon. They travelled by taxi and stayed at an expensive hotel. Nagesh lavishly ordered food and drink. They drove up Chamundi Hill and every other place she suggested. Walking with him in the Brindavan Gardens amidst the coloured lights, fountains and scented flowers, Pallavi felt like a princess in fairyland. Life was going to be wonderful.
In Chikmaglur, Pallavi was given a traditional welcome into the house, followed by a puja and distribution of sweets to the gathering. The next day Nagesh resumed his managerial duties. Pallavi knew that a man had to work. She too had to learn her duties in
her new home. Shanthamma took her firmly in hand. Pallavi served Nagesh food, kept his clothes and belongings ready and hovered around him, attentive to his every need. Nagesh barely acknowledged her services. Shanthamma was, of course, glad to direct, find fault and correct her. Pallavi waited eagerly for the night when the rest of the household slept. Nagesh relaxed in their room. She cheerfully prattled, while he gave an occasional grunt. Frequently, right in the middle of her animated talk, he would switch off the light, lie down and fall asleep. Initially, Pallavi was taken aback. Then she shrugged it off as her husband’s idiosynchrasy.
In the soft light of the morning, as Pallavi hung the washing on the clothesline in the backyard, there came a cuddly litle pup sniffing at her ankles.She bent down to pat it. The pup sprinted away, wagging its tail and looking back. Pallavi laughed and chased it. Both enjoyed the frolic that took them round a peepal tree. The pup spied a crow and ran after it. Pallavi stood flushed and panting under the tree. Looking up she felt as if the branches were gently swaying to fan her. A few dew drops fell on her upturned face. With a light heart Pallavi wiped her face with the end of her sari and returned to the house. Nagesh expected her to be ready and waiting when he came out for his breakfast.
A few weeks passed. No matter how much Pallavi tried, Nagesh was taciturn and unresponsive. He spoke to her only if he wanted something. Pallavi was beginning to doubt her own memories of the ardent, demanding lover who took her to Mysore for their honeymoon. Had she failed to please him? Every few days Nagesh washed, shaved, dressed in fine clothes and went off ‘on work’ to return only the following day. Pallavi became conscious of the pitying looks and whispers of the servants and workers of the estate. Gradually she surmised that there was another woman in Nagesh’s life.
Pallavi recalled what she had often heard back home at women's gatherings: "Men will be men. A girl makes her own fortune by being a devoted wife, an obedient daughter-in-law and a loving mother." She tried her best to fulfill the first two obligations. She faced the constricting environment day after day, without losing heart. When things overwhelmed her, she ran to the peepal tree to draw strength from it. She invariably came back refreshed and optimistic.
Hadn't she always performed well, back in Mandya? She was a good student, at the forefront during cultural events and a cheerful helper at home. In Mandya everybody was fond of her; everybody said she had good lakshana. What if her mother-in-law treated her like a beast of burden! She giggled and hummed "All the animals in the zoo, parlez-vous", a silly song that she had learnt at a students youth camp in school. Suddenly the song froze on her lips. Shanthamma was loudly bemoaning her childless daughter-in-law. Through the frantic medical and religious efforts to produce an heir to Nagesh, Pallavi had prayed with all her might. But to no avail. She was not only an animal in the zoo, apparently she was a barren cow. With a heavy heart, she carried on. Thus passed the toughest three years of Pallavi’s life........To be concluded in Part II.