Two Bellboys From Virudhachalam
An endearing and hopeful fictional narrative about a girl’s aspirations about her life and how she settles into an arranged marriage, albeit a happy one.
“I trust that Lord Venkateswara will do the needful.”
I was used to my mother’s matchmaking ways. Ever since I was eighteen, my mother had been trying to marry me off. And it was only some devious tears spilling down my woebegone face that kept the whole thing at bay. But now I was twenty-one. The matchmaking had started in earnest. But I always lived in the good faith that no one would ever see any good in me. Perhaps if I winked at my suitor…?
We were staying at the Bhima’s Hotel in Tirupati, which was as much a landmark there as the temple itself. Situated near the railways, this hotel was the first welcome stop of most weary travellers. But I was there to give my exams with my mother, while my mother, the conniving old lady, spent her time replying to ads in the Hindu paper.
I had seen this one. “Wanted,” it said, “A fair, employed, house-trained girl.” Well, well! I was far from fitting the bill. “But that’s what they all say,” was my mother’s optimistic reply. Ever so honest, my mother’s reply to that letter was (which my husband treasured), “My daughter is dark and not at all house trained. She has passed the Staff Selection exams and is waiting for her appointment in the Railways.”
Oh yes, I was definitely at the crossroads of my life.
Two bellboys served us at the hotel. Vadivelu, who was 12, and Shankar, who was 15. They hailed from Virudhachalam. Their story of the drought there and the huge families of sisters and brothers that they supported would have made our politicians hang their heads in shame.
In the evening, after my exams, I was free, as were these two boys from their duties. So we hung about in the balcony, talking and laughing and looking down at the people in the busy marketplace, while my mom chatted with the manager.
“Please let me know when her marriage is fixed. I would like to wish her,” said the manager. “Yes, do let us also know, Akka,”said Vadivelu and Shankar. I promised that I would, confident that the event would never take place. I was already dreaming of my job in the Railways.
Back home in Trichy, we received a letter informing us that the bridegroom’s party would be coming to see the girl. The father had written in, and he had emphasized that he did not believe in photographs and preferred to visit in person. I was woken at 4 am, and amidst protests, told to take a bath and was soon draped in a beautiful pink sari. The appetizing aroma of hot idlis and vadas and sambar wafted from the kitchen, mingled with laughter, as our neighbours had dropped in to help. But the ‘auspicious hours’ were over and rahu had set in when the party arrived. “There are two young men,” said my sister-in-law, looking out of the window, “And they both look nice.”
After a while, my mother called me into the room. I smiled around and sat down. Alarm shot through me at the adoring look the old couple gave me. The old man’s eyes, especially, were full of love. The lady looked at one of the young men, and he inclined his head ever so slightly, apparently in the affirmative, as I made out later.
“When can we hold the wedding?”
“Whenever convenient for you.”
“How about next month?”
My fate decided and sealed in a few seconds with no help from me!
I waited till they had left and then let loose a storm that made everyone quake in fear.
Had Mani Ratnam pinched the scene for his movie Mouna Ragam? It was so similar!
“Why, what is wrong with the boy?” asked my brother. “He is well qualified, has a good job and he likes music.”
“If I weren’t married, I would have married him,” said my sister-in-law blissfully, and got a whack.
“Sales talk,” I said.
“But why don’t you like him?”
Like one convicted not because one was there at the scene of the crime, but because one could not explain where one was at that time, I too sealed my fate by not having a proper answer to that question.
How could I explain the terror that built within me at the thought of marriage to a total stranger?
My mother sat down in front of me.
“Look ma, you are not like other children. You don’t have a father. Your brother has a growing family to look after and I am getting very old. Who will look after you after I am gone?”
I gave her a scornful look. “I hate emotional blackmail.” I told her.
My mother went to sleep a very bent and defeated old woman.
“Where are you going?” I demanded in the morning, as I saw my mother leave the house with a suitcase.
“To Madurai,” she said and left.
“I stayed in their house,” she said, when she came back home two days later, “And they are a very nice family. You will be very happy there. The engagement is next week.”
I saw the look of defiance on her face. She expected me to protest, cry. But I was way beyond all that. I was sick at heart. I said nothing.
It seemed that even God was against me. The golden bug haunted the house. Trees sprinkled flowers on me in the garden. And my railway job orders came on one day after the engagement. I was posted to Delhi. My future father-in-law would have none of it. So I sadly set it aside and continued with sticking turmeric on the four corners of my wedding cards, writing out the addresses and posting them.
“An excellent man, your husband!” said the goldsmith, looking at my palm “But he holds all the strings. Nothing is in your hands.”
I gave the paradoxical fool a nasty look. How could someone hold all the strings and be an excellent man at the same time? I had never liked the goldsmith. He pocketed all the coins in the carom board with the same precision with which he measured gold. But he never pocketed the striker.
“Have a wonderful life!” said my friends. John, who had helped me with my statistics paper, stopped speaking to me. I was puzzled at first till it dawned on me that I had actually broken a heart. I felt triumphant for a while, but sadly wondered how long it would last? Men were so self-centered!
I sat on my shattered dreams in the porch, waiting for the postman. Mustafa was my pal. He saved our house for the last so he could tell me of all the Hindi movies in town and the stories of the ones he had seen. Today he had a money order for me. For fifty rupees. The message simply said “VADIVELU. SHANKAR,” written in the childish scrawl of the illiterate. I looked at the dirty fifty rupees note that Mustafa handed me. He didn’t have another.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, looking at my emotion-filled face. I explained the two bellboys from Virudhachalam. He understood and left, knowing I wanted to be alone.
I sat staring at the fifty rupee note. How much had that money meant to them? And how much had I meant to them, just another passer-by whom they may never see again? The price of childhood lost in the corridors of the hotel. Were they even aware of what they had lost?
With time to spare a thought for me, a stranger…
Suddenly life did not seem that bad. I thought back about my in-laws, the love in their eyes (my father-in-law and I turned out to be such partners in crime!). They had come in when rahu had set in, partaken heartily of the meal prepared for them and left happy. And not once had they mentioned that hated word, “Gold.” Simple, basic people with no pretenses – my kind of people. And that guy – perhaps I could wind him around my little finger and get away with a few things? Oh yes, life wasn’t so bad really.
I decided I would buy a souvenir with the money. The Sun shone brighter that afternoon as I went in.
Lord Venkateswara with all the wealth of the world at his feet was not richer than I was that day.
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