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Jul/Aug 2004 fiction

The Same Story

by Padma Prasad


When he was twenty-three years old, Pandu went across the Godavari River to get his wife.

He was a quiet young man, this Pandu. And, he had not made any girl from anywhere pregnant.

He had a red complexion which came from his mother. He was a bit short. He had always eaten sour curd rice in his big, dented silver bowl, no matter what they were cooking in the house. When he smiled, it was as if all the happiness in this world began from his face. When he was angry, he went with a stick to the fields and found seven or eight snakes and killed them with a blow. He had a good head for languages. Just once, he visited Madras and came back with a mouthful of Tamil words. Even English, he knew some of the words, enough to talk with, though he stopped school in the middle of the eighth grade. His father and his father's father could trust him to hold onto a harvest and bring the cattle home.

It was a huge journey, this crossing the river to an island village many miles away. But the wind from the water rose like an excitement in the brain, and the vermilion sky was bold with color. Inside the boat the bridegroom sat in ordinary clothes, his eyes a little red from looking at the glamour of the river.

Next to him sat Maya, his first cousin from Madras. She was fourteen. She wore a parrot green city shirt with a v-neck that revealed the new shadows of her just grown chest. He was becoming irritated with her questions.

"So," she said as if she had lived with him all his life, "how do you feel now, to be getting married and all?"

His head moved slowly.

"Did you get to see her? If you want, I will go and see her and tell you what she's like as soon as we get there. Do you want me to do that or not?"

He slid the little window of the cabin so that some of that wind would come in.

When she was small and came during the summer vacations, he had tied a rope swing for her from the roof; and then when she was tired of that, she trailed behind him in the fields and climbed the mango trees with a fervor that he understood. But now the sweat poured from his forehead and wandered down his back, and his hands had to be still.

"What happens if you don't like her after you see her? Answer me, Pandu, you have to tell me the truth, what are you going to do then?"

"That will not happen."

"How will that not happen? It can happen as much as it can not happen."

"Here, it is like that. My mother has seen her. My father has also seen her."

"You cannot simply be happy with that."

"Here it is like that. You tell me now, when are you going to grow your hair? Last time you came, you promised you will not cut it."

She laughed. "It's too hot, you know. And the friends in my class all have bobbed hair."

"Who will marry you then, if you go about looking like a boy?"

"Stop that. All you people ever think of here is getting married."

She ran away to the top of the boat, where the rest of the wedding party talked, smoked, and joked, oblivious of the mighty sunset. The wind was moist and smelled of silk, fish, cigarettes, and women.

 

Back in Pandu's village, his grandfather sat beneath the hundreds-of-years-old neem tree. In its shadows were his deepest thoughts. He felt his age diminish when he breathed the wind filtered by its leaves.

For some time he watched the very pregnant goat tied to one of the pillars of the verandah. Then he called Maya's six-year-old sister, Sumi. She had refused to go on the boat, and her mother had stayed behind with her.

"Come here. Get that little stool and sit beside me," the grandfather said. "And tell me again that story of the President and you."

The child obeyed at once. She was a round, well-fed child, her face filled with such innocence, you could not resist pinching her cheeks.

"How many times you want to hear the same thing?" she said.

"Never mind, you tell me."

She adjusted her frock over her knees and began. "Once upon a time, when I went to Washington, I met President Kennedy. We both went for a walk. On the way, we saw Mrs. Indira Gandhi."

"Who's that?"

"Indira Gandhi, don't you know, our prime minister. The three of us went and got some ice cream. Just then, a man came with a gun and tried to shoot. But I threw my ice cream into his face, and he fell down. So the president said I should go to the White House. But we lost the way and went into a deep and dangerous forest." She broke off at this point, staring at the goat.

"Look, Thaatha, look, the goat, something terrible is happening to the goat."

Pandus' grandfather looked at the goat, who was now moaning and stamping about.

"She's going to have the baby, that's what the fuss is about. You continue your story now."

"No. She's crying so much. It's paining for her. Do something, no?"

"She'll be alright, that's how it is. Go on with the story, now."

"I want to go to my mother."

"Here, this is for you. Go to your mother, if you want." The grandfather plucked five seedless grapes from a bunch in the bowl near his chair and gave them to her. The goat continued to moan for half an hour. The grandfather shooed away the flies and stared down the dusty road, where an occasional farmer or laborer passed by, folding his hands respectfully as he went along. Crows were up in the neem tree, eating its bitter berries. They dropped the seeds and cawed till he almost dozed off.

There was a struggling sound. The mother had finally pushed out the sac with the baby goat. For a few minutes it hung from her and then reached the ground with a soft little thud, spattering some discolored blood and fluid. The tiny goat pushed suffocatingly against the sac and hurried to stand up. Again and again its knees buckled. When it finally stood, it was puzzled by its achievement; its legs splayed outward, and it tried out the capacity of its throat. It made a high 'maeaeh' sound and swiveled its neck in many directions. Then it was back on the ground. The mother goat waited beside her effort.

It was almost lunch time. The grandfather got up with great difficulty from his easy chair and stretched himself. He went into the house and into the back.

Sumi's mother was lounging on a camp cot with other female relatives. They were looking at wedding saris and each other's jewellery.

"See if there is a servant or laborer," the grandfather said. "Ask them to get some hay and wipe the new goat."

Everyone scattered before him.

Then he went to his bedroom safe. He took out the big key that was tied around his waist and opened the iron door. On the top shelf, amidst the neat piles of bank notes, there was a blue velvet case, which he opened. He carefully lifted the magnifying glass that was inside. This glass was made in France, and the grandfather had bought it from a man who smuggled French cigarettes from the neighboring French territory of Yanam. It had an ornate silver handle. He went through the house to the goat. On the way, he said, "Where is Sumi? Tell her the baby goat has come. Ask her to come and see the baby goat."

The goat mother was now sitting down, and her face looked different. The little baby was on its knees. Pandu's grandfather peered through the magnifying glass. He lifted the face and studied the nostrils, the ears and the shape of the eyes. He lifted the tail and looked under.

Then he patted its head. For a moment his long graceful fingers stroked the neck. "You're a beautiful girl," he said.

Sumi crept forward to touch the back of the goat.

 

Weddings in that village usually took place at 12.59 a.m.

Or such a time during the night, like 2.26 a.m.

"I can't keep awake," Maya complained to her aunt. "Why do they do such things? How can anyone keep awake?"

"Don't worry, the drums will not let you sleep. What will you do when you get married, I don't know."

"My stomach is paining."

"Then go and lie down."

Earlier in the day, Maya was asked to see her cousin-to-be. The girl sat with her face down and would not say a word to Maya. She was very fair, and her hair reached below her waist.

Many thoughts jammed into Maya's head:

The mother is dark brown, the father is just a lighter shade of that.
The island is a hot island, but this girl is so white?
All the novels I have read tell me you are the ice maiden.
Pandu, poor cousin Pandu does not look like a great lover.
I can help you, you know, if only you will let me or tell me something.
I can easily get a picture of my cousin for you.
But you look frozen beyond fear.
Pandu is not taller than you. If you stand up, I can be surer of that.
His mother is a little dangerous, even I get worried.
How you will manage with her?
My grandmother once told me, women are like flowers.
But you are a sad, drooping flower. Why?
You don't want this marriage, or not.
If I had lived here, I would be married by now.
No, no, no. I can't be older than you.
Plus, I have to finish school and go to college.
I'm thinking of journalism all the time.

It was silent in the room. Finally, Maya's aunt said, "You must be hungry, no?"

That was when Maya ate the shrimp cooked with cashew nuts and all those sweets and developed the stomach pain.

Which was good, because she didn't need the drums to keep her awake for the midnight wedding. She found a good corner to watch Pandu's face when his wife was shown to him. There was only one initial flash from his eyes.

There were no big flowers for this wedding. It was too hot on the island, and the boat that brought such things had not come that day. Only a few marigolds were strung up for the bride's long hair.

The ceremonies went on till the dawn. In the afternoon, the bride said goodbye to her relatives and was at the door. The husband and wife were ushered to the boat, and the whole crowd there was silent. The wife hesitated at the water's edge. Then her fingers closed around Pandu's brown and eager wrist. She hitched up her golden wedding sari and stepped into the boat.

When they were sitting inside, Maya said to Pandu, "Have you spoken to her?"

"There's a lot of time for that."

"You're not going to say anything to him?"

For the first time, the bride smiled.

"If you don't even talk to each other, what happens next then?"

"What happens next, Maya, is your marriage. I have already thought of a good man for you," said Pandu, pinching her nose. "I know the very man. Little old, only seventy-six. With a big house, though. He has three wives, Maya, but I don't think they'll mind. Just to have a city girl like you, with bobbed hair, wearing pants, English..."

"Shut up, you, shut up. Let go, you silly cousin, let me go!" Maya struggled as Pandu brought her over his lap. Her hands clawed over his mouth, her nostrils flared, her teeth clenched.

Stirred by this skirmish, Pandu's wife reached for Maya and tried to remove her from Pandu's clasp. He stared, weakening at the strength of her fingers. Safe at the cabin doorway, Maya said, "I'm going to tell Thaatha. Just wait and see."

 

It was evening when they reached Pandu's village. The carts with all the baggage were already ahead of them. There was a big crowd waiting to receive them. Pandu's grandfather sat in his easy chair in front of the crowd. He was wearing a long, white Khadhi silk shirt with gold cuff links. There was a golden shawl around his shoulders. His completely metal white hair was freshly barbered, and the parting was perfect. His face had been seamlessly shaved, and his nails, too, had been trimmed by the barber. Beside him, Sumi sat on her stool. She wore a magenta sleeveless frock, and a rose was pinned on her hair. The goat and its baby were somewhere else. The crowd stayed still.

Pandu and his wife got down from the taxi. The grandfather made his preparations to get up. His hands cupped around his walking cane. Pandu's brother held his arm, and then he rose, a tall, proud man, his mouth neat and stern. He was the tallest man in that crowd. Pandu and his wife touched the grandfather's feet. When they stood up, the grandfather spoke to Pandu. Pandu nodded and ran into the house. He returned at once with the magnifying glass. A little hush developed in the crowd. He gave it to his grandfather and stood behind his wife.

The grandfather gestured, and Pandu's wife moved forward. He tipped her chin and studied her face through the magnifying glass. Her face said nothing. Sumi jumped off her stool. "Are you going to say, "You're a beautiful girl, Thaatha?" she said.

The stern mouth relaxed. The grandfather nodded twice. From the long pocket of his shirt, he took out some sugar candy. He put it in the bride's hand and spoke to Pandu's mother, "Let her go inside and rest."

 

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