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The Dowry Bride
By SHOBHAN BANTWAL
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Shobhan Bantwal
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHer parents named her Megha, which means "cloud" in Sanskrit, perhaps because she cast a gray shadow over their lives at a time when they didn't expect overcast skies. She was an unexpected, unpleasant surprise-rather late in their lives. Her father was in his forties, her mother in her thirties. When they were desperately hoping it would at least turn out to be a boy after having had two girls, now ages thirteen and eleven, she came along-another screaming infant girl-with all the wants and needs and tribulations of a female, all the burdens of a Hindu Brahmin woman.
Her father never recovered from the disappointment. Her mother quietly accepted it as her destiny. Together they began to contemplate how they would ever manage to put aside enough money to pay three varadakhshinas. Dowries.
Some Hindus believe that if you give your child a depressing name, you can keep evil away from it. They often apply a dot of kohl on a baby's face to mar its perfection, as no one will be tempted to put a hex on a flawed child. Megha was told she was an unusually beautiful baby, bright and full of energy. She often wondered if the name Megha was her spot of kohl, guaranteed to deflect the evil eye. When asked about it, her mothersaid the only reason they called her Megha was because they happened to like the name.
Then there was the astrologer, a man known for his accuracy, who had cast her janam-patrika. Horoscope. He had apparently predicted a dark, threatening period in Megha's life, when a large cloud would settle over her head, and Yama, the god of death, would pay her a visit. He wasn't able to foretell exactly when ... but the menace would come, he'd warned.
It would come. It was bound to come-sooner or later.
Chapter TwoAt the age of twenty-one, Megha Ramnath was not only married for a year but was about to be executed. In the damp, foggy darkness of the night, she stood outside the woodshed, her brows drawn in puzzlement, the loose end of her plain blue cotton sari tightly drawn around her slim shoulders. Had she heard correctly, or was her mind playing strange tricks on her?
Standing on her toes, she peeped into the shed's window, secretly listening to her would-be murderers whispering, hatching their sinister plan to finish her off.
There was no light anywhere except for the ominous, dull yellow glow coming from the kandeel. Lantern. It barely illuminated the woodpile leaning against the wall in the corner and the two tins of kerosene standing nearby. The concrete floor, reduced to a blotchy gray from decades of sawdust, oil stains, and dirt, looked grungier than ever.
Icy fingers crept down the nape of her neck, telling her something was not quite right. What was it she sensed? What unexplained electric charge sent chills up and down her spine? Megha strained to listen, trying to make sense of the conversation going on inside the shed.
Kuppu, the fat old calico cat, sat huddled at her feet, shuddering, sending tremors up Megha's legs. Was it experiencing the same eerie feeling she was? Cats could sense danger better than humans. The leaves rustled in the nearby guava tree, making her jump. She looked up, afraid to breathe, but realized it was only some night creature stirring-perhaps a bird disturbed by Kuppu's presence. Just then Kuppu's back lifted in an arch-a definite sign of fear. And Megha's breathing turned ragged.
Then it dawned on her. Her large dark eyes opened wide with alarm. She was going to be killed! Realization struck her like a punch in the stomach. Terror replaced numbing shock, sending her heartbeat soaring.
Oh, God! Could this really be happening to her? And why? She was an ordinary housewife with a boring life; she had no enemies. She was considered pretty, but it couldn't possibly be a reason for anyone to kill her. She had no particular talents and posed no threat to anyone. Although her life meant little to anybody but herself, her death would mean even less.
And yet, she was going to be murdered!
The most puzzling part of the mystery was that her executioners were none other than her husband, Suresh Ramnath, and his ferocious mother, Chandramma Ramnath. The children in the family called her Amma. In their native Kannada language, Amma meant mother, but since she was also the eldest female in the family, she was Amma to all the kids, including nieces and nephews. Even the male servant who came in daily to wash the clothes and mop the floors addressed her as Ammabai. Bai was the respectful Indian equivalent of the English term madam.
Despite what was going on in the woodshed, the surrounding scene looked perfectly normal. The nondescript Ramnath home, with its sooty windows and aged concrete frame, was like many other homes in Cantonment Galli or Street-single-storied, with three bedrooms and a small backyard. The houses were dark, boxy squares rising out of the fog.
The neighborhood was middle-class, where most of the women stayed home and cooked and raised the children while the men held office jobs or owned small businesses. Most every family had a servant come in daily for an hour or two to perform the menial tasks-not a luxury but a necessity. Very rarely did this class of folks travel for pleasure. They ate at a restaurant or went to the cinema perhaps once a month. Money was usually tight and every rupee had to be saved for the children's futures.
At this late hour, the rural town of Palgaum was asleep. Even the most vigilant watchdogs dozed in languorous abandon in the sultry humidity of the tropical October night. The last show at the movie theaters had let out and the crowds had gone home to their beds. Except for a handful of individuals who had business staying awake, like night-shift guards and policemen, nurses minding hushed hospital wards, industrious prostitutes, and the occasional nocturnal youth or drunk loitering on a darkened street, the place was tranquil. A fine, damp mist had wound its way from the river and spread like a ghostly shroud, while a silent quarter-moon watched over the slumbering town.
After long hours of slogging in the kitchen to keep her husband and in-laws well-fed and content, Megha usually slept like the dead. It was her sole escape from a life she had slowly come to abhor-her only relief for those aching feet, back, and arms that resulted from shopping for endless lists of rations and hauling them home on foot, grinding spices, coconut and various kinds of batters on the heavy grinding stone, serving meals, and handling heavy pots of steaming food and buckets of bath water. One of the advantages of being so young was the ability to sink into oblivion once her head settled on the pillow each night.
And yet, a little earlier, startled by an odd sound, her eyelids had flown open in an instant. It was different from the normal nightly cacophony of snores coming from her in-laws' room. She could only hear her father-in-law, Vinayak Ramnath, or Appaji as the kids called him, snoring in the master bedroom, and her teenaged sister-in-law, Shanti, breathing like a muffled whistle in her room across the passageway.
But what about Amma, her mother-in-law, the Amazon witch? The older woman's notorious snoring was ominously absent. It was generally riotous enough to disturb anyone within a hundred meters. Was that corpulent mass of a woman, Chandramma, lying awake? Was she hatching another one of her twisted plans to make Megha's life even more difficult?
After a minute, Megha recognized the peculiar sound. It was the door to the small storage shed that sat at a little distance from the rear of the house and contained their monthly supply of wood and kerosene. The hinges on the door were rusty and squeaked every time it was opened or shut. It was a familiar echo from her daily trips to the shed to haul in the wood for the kitchen and bathroom hearths. The Ramnaths were too stingy for a gas stove, and the daily bath water was heated in a big brass cauldron because electricity was both expensive and unreliable.
Megha's breath caught on the possibility that she might have forgotten to lock the shed before retiring for the night. Amma would surely take her to task for such carelessness. Her fierce and tyrannical mother-in-law would never tolerate incompetence on Megha's part. A young daughter-in-law could not afford to make even trivial mistakes. A bride had to earn her keep and the right to be called a good Brahmin wife.
Megha turned around in bed, wondering if her husband, Suresh, had heard the noise. She was mystified to find him missing. Generally he'd be huddled under the sheet beside her, his bony buttocks sticking out at a strange angle, his wide-lipped mouth hanging open in deep, childlike slumber.
Frowning, she glanced at the bedside clock. The neon-red digital display read 12:23 AM. The bedroom door was ajar. Where could Suresh be? It was a warm night and she'd wondered if he'd gone for a glass of water. She herself had awakened perspiring. Her thick, long plait lay limply against her moist back. Her sari clung to her hips and legs.
Sleeping in a sari, which was six long yards of fabric, was terribly uncomfortable and impractical, but in an old-fashioned family such as this, she was not allowed to wear nightgowns or kaftans. There were established rules of etiquette and attire for ladies. Amma had made them clear right from the beginning. "Those silly gowns and frocks that show the legs and bosoms are not allowed in our house, okay? Ladies in our house only wear saris."
Assuming Suresh was probably in the kitchen or bathroom, Megha called out to him. She received no reply.
That was when the first faint ripple of fear crossed her mind. Could a burglar have broken into their shed? Thefts were not uncommon around this neighborhood, and wood and kerosene were expensive commodities.
Her next thought made her sit up in stark alarm. Oh my God! Someone is stealing our firewood and Suresh is trying to confront them-all one hundred and five pounds of him. They'll crush him to a pulp! Her heartbeat had leapt in panic. He needs my help.
She shot out of bed like an arrow, her long, slim legs moving rapidly despite the bulky folds of the sari and the petticoat swirling around them. She rushed through the old-fashioned kitchen, nearly stumbling over the round grinding stone before reaching the rear door leading to the covered veranda. Kuppu, the family cat, hearing Megha's footsteps, bounced off the window sill and followed close on her heels.
Standing on the veranda steps, she puzzled some more over her husband's absence. The fog made it difficult to see much, but a faint sliver of light was visible underneath the door of the woodshed. She visualized images of Suresh lying in a pool of blood, his skinny body motionless. As far as she had determined, Suresh was incapable of defending himself against even the weakest of attacks. Suresh needed her. But what should she do?
Well, defend him, of course! Steely determination goaded her into action. Being the youngest of three girls, she had learned to wrestle with her older sisters for everything including space in their small, cramped house, their parents' attention, clothes and toys. So now she'd put those acquired defensive moves to good use.
Megha wasn't about to let some petty thugs make her a widow at twenty-one. She'd fight them with everything she had-if necessary, even give her own life to save her husband's. It was her duty as an ideal wife. But she had to come up with a strategy. Barging into the shed like a crazed woman wouldn't do her any good, nor Suresh for that matter. First she had to determine the gravity of the situation.
She was afraid of the dark, always had been, but something in the shed seemed to beckon her with a force that both frightened and excited her. She stepped down from the veranda.
Nearing the shed, Megha heard hushed voices, barely audible. Talking burglars? Or was it Suresh, her naïve, impractical husband, actually trying to strike a compromise with the thieves? There was only one way to find out. Despite the misgivings nipping at her brain, she tiptoed barefoot across the dirt-covered yard toward the shed.
She'd been so preoccupied she nearly walked right into the big tulsi pot. Somehow she managed to break her fall by grabbing it with both hands. But she grazed her knees and nearly banged her head on its edge in the process.
The holy tulsi plant was a tropical variety of basil, held sacred by Hindus. In most conservative households it was planted in a clay pot or urn anchored to the ground in the center of the courtyard-an honored place. The urn was usually painted in bright colors and the plant well-tended. It was customary for women to pray daily to the tulsi for blessings.
Despite the clammy heat of the night, Megha felt goose bumps pop up along her arms, her stomach instinctively tighten. For a fleeting second she was tempted to run back to bed, pull the covers over her head and let this weird, eerie night go on without her. She wanted to be a little girl again; she didn't want to know about dark nights and the fearsome things that stalked them.
But she was not a little girl anymore; she was a grown woman with responsibilities, and she couldn't afford to shirk them. Besides, the mysterious force in the shed seemed to draw her closer. Was Suresh still alive?
Taking care to avoid the narrow band of light under the door, she edged along the side wall as noiselessly as possible and positioned herself to peer through the open window. Puzzled lines formed on her brow. There was no sign of strangers and certainly no burglars. Only Amma and Suresh were inside the shed.
A stench suddenly assailed her nostrils. Kerosene! That potent, unexpected odor made her stomach revolt.
What in heaven's name were her husband and mother-in-law doing in there at this hour? Why did the place reek of kerosene? Bewildered, Megha continued to observe them in silence. This was entirely out of character. The obese and sluggish Amma should have been deep in sleep and so should Suresh. They were both heavy sleepers. And yet, here they were, in the dead of night, murmuring to each other in the dusty, rat-infested woodshed of all places.
Amma wore a deep purple sari and stood with her tree-stump legs apart, in her usual militant posture, fat hands planted on her hips. Even in the pale light cast by the lantern her face was plainly visible. Perspiration glistened on her dark-coffee skin as she stared at a crude bed fashioned out of crisscrossed logs of firewood lying on the floor. "Suresh, make sure the kerosene is soaked into the wood, boy. It has to catch fire quickly and burn for a long time," she instructed.
Burn valuable wood in the middle of the night? For what purpose?
Tiny beads of sweat showed on Suresh's wide forehead as he crouched on the floor beside the logs, still wearing the sky-blue pajamas he'd worn to bed. He appeared shaky, anxious, as he looked up at his mother. But then, he was always like that around his mother. "Amma, are you sure about this? What if the neighbors suspect something?"
"Don't be silly," snorted Amma. "They're all fast asleep."
"What if they inform the police?"
"Stop worrying over nothing, boy."
"We'll all end up in jail, Amma." His voice sounded feeble and pleading.
Jail? Megha's heart missed a solid beat. What kind of illegal business was her husband getting himself into? And his own mother was leading him into it? How come Suresh had said nothing to Megha, his wife? She would have talked him out of it in a minute. But then, he was always Amma's little boy, hanging on her every word-too stupid to think for himself.
Amma slapped Suresh's shoulder, making him lurch forward and nearly fall on his face. "Don't be an idiot, Suresh. Do you see a single light on in any of the neighbors' homes?"
"That does not mean someone is not awake, Amma," he argued weakly.
"Nonsense! Besides, we don't socialize with any of those low-caste people. They don't even know us."
"But, Amma, this is still illegal. You understand that?"
"There is nothing illegal about what is right, Suresh." Suresh merely stared at his mother, too much of a coward to stand up to her.
Excerpted from The Dowry Bride by SHOBHAN BANTWAL Copyright © 2007 by Shobhan Bantwal. Excerpted by permission.
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