Rajammal – a serialized novel…
Read the first five sections here:
Ambuja learns about Rajammal
In the years that followed, Rajammal anchored Ambuja’s life as friend, mother, companion and advisor. She could be sensitive, tolerant, arrogant, dismissive or defiant with equal ease. Through long conversations, Ambuja learnt about Rajammal. They found time to talk on leisurely afternoons, rainy days or during the long hours they spent in the kitchen. It all began with Rajammal’s birth…
Rajammal – 1890
Dawn was just breaking and a dense blanket of mist hung over the Bhagirathi River. All it would take was a quick, hot embrace from the rising sun to melt it down. Then the water would ripple and sparkle brilliantly once more.
The river split up and encircled Theevupatti, the island village before coming together after the village was past. Pankajam and Shankara Shastry her husband lived in the little stone house behind the ancient Shiva temple on the fringes of the village. It would have been just another nondescript village but for the temple which attracted devotees through the year.
The temple was built on the banks of the river and uneven stone steps from the river led up to it. The river was home to floats of crocodiles that sometimes lay completely still on the temple steps sunning themselves. Their stealthy black forms looked deceptively like the black steps they lay on. Stories were rife of devotees who had stepped on them unknowingly and been dragged away, never to be seen again.
The temple belonged to Annaswami Shastri’s family. Anna as he was more popularly known, owned most of the land around Theevupatti and had leased it all out to the farmers in the village. In return he got more food grains than his family could consume. He fed devotees who thronged the temple everyday with this surplus. They reciprocated with gratitude and revered him as much as the Lord Shiva they came to worship.
Shankara Shastry was the only son of the older priest Shivakumar Shastry. Anna had three sons and referred to Shankara as his fourth son. Shankara had married Pankajam while his father was still alive. She was the daughter of an equally impoverished priest from the neighbouring village.
Pankajam came out of the little stone house and walked towards the oleander bush to pick flowers for the day’s puja. The branches of the oleander bush were weighed down by fat, waxy pink blossoms and dark as it was, she began to choose the best ones by feel alone. Heavy with child, she had felt unwell all night. A dull ache in her back had troubled her; it got more severe as she walked towards the bush. Maybe it was time. The temple was far from the village and it would take time for help to reach her. She called out to the woman who was sweeping the temple yard and sent her to fetch Chechamma the village midwife.
The lines of fatigue and the despair on her face signaled that it was not just the pain that was troubling her. There was so much to worry about, other than the coming baby. Shankara’s life which had been restricted to the temple had recently expanded to include some friends from the village, who had introduced him to the pleasures of gambling. The occasional winnings that came his way were enough for him to seek them out every evening. He sometimes played with his own, but more often with borrowed money.
Anna had called for her yesterday. He had warned her that Shankara was deeply in debt, not only to him, but to some others in the village as well. “I am going to pay off his creditors this time, but advice your husband Pankajam,” he had said. “He is going to be a father soon and has to be more responsible.”
“Yes Anna, I will speak to him,” Pankajam had assured him. She kept her eyes to the ground and her cheeks felt hot and flushed. She was a proud woman and it distressed her that Anna spoke to her in this manner.
Pankajam looked up startled as she heard the loud peal of the temple bells and the shlokas being chanted by her husband in his reverberating voice, and hurried to him with the flowers…
As Pankajam neared the temple, she doubled with pain and sat on the temple steps. Calling out to her husband, she said to him, “Take me into the house. I think the baby is coming.”
The baby, a girl, had come after Pankajam had suffered long hours of pain. Shankara looked proudly at his new-born daughter. “I’m going to call her Rajammal,” he said, smiling. Pankajam smiled back tired, but happy. She held Rajammal and recalled the night she was conceived her. It was a very stormy night. Storm clouds had let loose torrents of rain that fell noisily to the ground. The Bhagirathi was in spate. Pankajam had scarcely noticed the turbulence. She had been waiting for this night.
Some holy men had passed by some months ago and Pankajam who had lost four children soon after birth, had prayed to them tearfully for a healthy child. They had prescribed three weeks of abstinence and given her a date to ‘become one’ with her husband.
Freshly bathed, wearing her best saree and flowers in her hair, Pankajam had gone to him that night. She swore till her last day on earth that she had sensed his seed entering her that night. That seed grew into Rajammal. Dark skinned, she had a long straight nose, narrow forehead and high cheek bones. Her loud cries could drown the roar of the river and she was stubborn even as a weeks-old infant. She was born into a debt-laden family. She didn’t know it then, but her life was to be rife with struggle and deprivation. The love of her parents would be small compensation.
To be continued…