There was drama in the house. It wasn’t just about the miraculous safe birth of a baby before its time to a girlcropped-oleanders-e1525883936887 barely out of childhood. By housing Ponni and her baby in the main house, Raji had created a virtual revolt. The family forgot that there was a job on hand. They forgot about the mother and child needing care till they were safe. Norms had been torn apart and there were questions being thrown around. How far would Subramanya indulge his wife? What would she do next? Ponni might have got more sympathy had she not been in the house. As it was, even her parents and husband were apologetic about her plight. She needed attention but they were scared to give it to her. Ponni’s husband did not even enter the house to see his daughter.

Nobody liked the baby save Raji and perhaps Subramanya. Chechamma sidestepped the room where Ponni and her little infant daughter were housed; Pankajam and Radha were openly hostile. Pankajam was so angry with Raji, she told Chechamma she had given birth to a rakshasi (she-devil). The others seemed undecided. But it was the behaviour of Kuppi the maid who swept the grounds clean everyday that surprised Raji the most. She was Ponni’s aunt, and yet she warned Raji that it was inauspicious to keep a low-caste, new mother in the house. It was unclean she said. She also feared that Ponni’s family might suffer because they were breaking rules. They were defying the rules God had made.

Raji was unaffected by all that was happening around her and was on a mission to nurse the baby to health. She had been too young when Harihara was born so when she held this baby in her arms, it was all so new. She reveled in the scent of the new born, her softness and her tender vulnerability. The baby’s open lips, searching for her mother’s breast and her crinkled, wizened face, as the skin peeled off and new skin took its place left her incredulous. She took charge of caring for both mother and child. The doctor had cautioned, “Keep the baby warm and rest the mother. The baby must feed well and gain some weight fast.” This was easier said. For the first few weeks, the little infant cried weakly with hunger almost incessantly and feeding her posed all kinds of problems. Ponni was unwilling for the baby to be put to her pubescent breasts and a fight invariable ensued between her mother and her. Ponni wasn’t yet out of childhood and looking after an infant was far too arduous for her. She had to to be woken up during the night to feed the whimpering infant.

Pankajam and Chechamma denied permission for food to be made for the new mother till Subramanya got firm, after which they agreed reluctantly to allow hot rice and rasam and some vegetables to be taken to her. Ponni’s mother had to fetch a plate from her house for this, and the food that was put into it was heavily coated with their sarcasm and resentment.

As she sat by Ponni, Raji wrote in her diary furiously everyday. There were stories and incidents in it that sometimes appalled her when she read what she had written. There were accounts of cruelty towards Ponni from her parents, who had subjected her to an adult life before she was ready for it. It distressed her that Ponni’s own clan was resentful she was being cared for by a high-caste family. It shocked her that they feared for Ponni’s life because they believed she had sinned by agreeing to stay in the main house. It shocked her even more that Pankajam, having suffered so much did not have a shred of compassion in her.

She vented with Subramanya one night. “Mama, can’t you see injustice all around you? You are a judge; you know how to give justice. How can you allow this to happen?” His attitude infuriated her. He didn’t seem troubled at all and called her self-righteous. “Raji, what you see around you is not intolerance. It a way of life built on norms that create zones of comfort. You are being intolerant by expecting instant change. Do you remember sitting by the river in Theevupatti and throwing stones into it? When a stone hit the water did you see the water suddenly becoming agitated? It only caused a small ripple. And then, without help from the stone, the ripples widened didn’t they? But they took time and the stone had no part in it.” He was firm and placatory in turns, “You are just that stone. Let the river take its time. Don’t push so hard that people begin to break. Limit yourself to saving Ponni and her baby. What you’re doing is building unrest in the house and I cannot allow you to do that.”

She saw impatience in his eyes, which told her she had said too much. She fell silent. But the pages of her diary continued to fill. Damodar and she chatted too when she had time to go away to her spot under the mango tree. He agreed with her, but like Subramanya, he too advised caution. Subramanya and Damodar knew Raji was only biding her time. She was not one to give up so easily. They both wondered what was coming next.

What came next was not something dramatic as they feared. Raji was caught up with naming the baby. After sifting through dozens of names and consulting Ponni’s family, she gave the baby a name – Malar. It meant ‘the one who looks like a flower’. Raji found it perfect for the baby for she did look like an innocent, tender petaled flower. Malar was born into a strife-ridden world, but she had a fierce guardian.

They had a naming ceremony for her inside the room. Only Raji, Ponni’s parents and husband were present. Subramanya came in just to whisper the name in her ear and give her a thick gold chain. Malar wore a lovely silk chemise Raji had hand-stitched for her. She was three-months old now and beginning to gain weight. Her dark skin glowed and her beady eyes were shiny and bright. Her little arms with clenched fists flailed around as if she was ready for the fight ahead of her. Ponni looked happy and well. They were ready to go home.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…

 

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