Paro stepped up dutifully, her gaze downcast, her fingers knotting themselves together with a nervous fervour. Her voice was surprisingly diminutive given only a moment before, they had heard her squeal with delight when she was playing with little Jai in the next room. No, in the presence of her elders, she had to be meek and bashful, and she would have to remain that way irrespective of whether they were ridiculing her, evaluating her or applauding her recently successful arangetram. Madhusudhan looked at her and smiled from the pyol in the corner. “She has beautiful eyes.”
A wave of agreeing nods swept the room, Paro’s mother and aunt smiling wide. Mahendran, Paro’s father, was beginning to well up with joy. Madhu was the first suitor they had solicited ever since Paro had completed her studies. He was apprehensive that her blindness would pose some hurdle in the betrothal, but that was not to be; Madhu liked her eyes! He was a peon at the village school, and had been orphaned since birth. The elders in the neighbourhood from the same cast as the groom were assembled. They would handle the “essentials”, they proclaimed; Madhu need only like the girl. And he did. A date for the marriage was fixed: April 24th, an auspicious day. After the affair was complete and the guests had been fed, the tension in the house loosened.
Once the entourage was seen off outside, Paro walked slowly back inside and found herself moved to tears when her aunt hugged her. “You are a very lucky girl”, she said, “Madhusudhan is a good man. He has none of those vices we women suffer for”-at this she winked at her sister-“and you won’t have the intolerable nuisance of a mother-in-law.” They all cracked up at this, but Paro could only smile. The decision to have her married had been so sudden. She’d have thought her father, who, for a man of his mediocre standing, had defied everyone else in the village to send her to the town college. After her degree had been awarded, he’d told her not to worry about anything. He’d been there for her whensoever she needed a shoulder, and his shoulders were sturdy, unwavering in their sacrifice. He’d called her blindness a blessing in disguise. “You are my child. More than that, however, you are the child of perseverance and faith, and the absence of light in your eyes is God’s way of sparing you from all the sorrow in this world.” Faith and perseverance, she thought. She couldn’t understand what her father had done today, and she knew only faith in his actions and perseverance of her beliefs would show the way.
Night was slowly creeping upon their cottage. Mahendran set out to buy some supplies, his bamboo walking stick sounding that sharp knock against the stones on the doorstep. Once she was sure he had turned left into the main road, she whispered reedily, afraid to call anyone else: “Amma?” The answer was quickly returned, as if Kausalya was waiting nearby, as if the mother knew what doubts would be plaguing her child’s mind. “I’m right here. Tell me, kanna.” She laid a gentle hand on the child’s head and had her lie down on her lap; soon, Paro would cry, she knew. “I know what appa did was strange. I know you’re wondering why.”
“Yes, amma. Does he feel I’m a burd-”
“Here, child, don’t you say things like that! Your father or I never thought of you that way. You’re a blessing, kanna, you’re the greatest daughter anyone could ever have. We love you.”
“Then why this marriage? Why now? I’m only 19.”
“I know, kanna, but you must understand that whatever his hopes for you, they end here. Let me say this all at once, child, you will understand, I’m sure. When you were born and doctor told your father you were blind, your father was silent for a minute. He did not say anything, he was neither crying nor rejoicing, but he was only looking at me, he was looking to see what I was thinking. You see, your blindness did not bother your father, but if I had so much shed a single tear, he would have wept. If I had smiled, he would have laughed. Kanna, your father has a family to support, and you are at its centre.”
“I don’t know, amma, all this feels very strange and unlike him. Do you remember how, when Manjula was married off on the day after her nineteenth birthday, appa was so indignant? What about all the plans he had for me? What about his wish that he wanted me to work in the city? How will he come visit me in the big city when I’m married to Madhusudhan here?”
“He’s brought you up as a strong woman, no doubt, stronger than all of us in mind and health in fact, but back then, you were only his daughter. Now you’re Parvati. Now, as much a woman as is conceived between her maturity and her motherhood, and you must realize that when you turn into a woman, a father turns into a weaker man. Appa is scared.”
“Scared for what? You just said-”
“I know, kanna, but think of it this way. A woman faces no greater fight than that with herself. Appa could easily have defied the elders and sent you to the city to live and work there, he has been defying them all these years. Now, it is no longer about defiance. He has no enemies and nobody is contesting him. All that remains is that he begot a daughter, and now that she is a woman, he must face the reality of you becoming something, rather someone, who is much larger in purpose than himself. When he returns from the grocer, if you would go and tell him you don’t want this marriage to happen, the man will succumb. He will. He loves you very much and he would be ashamed that he’d forced this much upon you!”
“He has no need to feel that way. It isn’t his fault!”
“You’re right, kanna, but before you tell him that, I wanted to talk to you about being a woman. When you were growing up, when you were experiencing the world as a little girl, you were only his daughter, and he did not know you as anyone more than the relationship between you and him. If he’d had a blind son, he’d have brought him up the same way he’d brought you up. I could not say much because the man was stubborn, and I was put down a lot.” She paused, the last few words slowing down on her lips. As if suddenly reminded of a day she cherished, as if an epiphany from her younger days had reawakened its music, she continued again.
“You are your father’s daughter, and I say that only because there is very little of my upbringing in you. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but only that it is the truth. You know that. However, as your mother, the greatest day in my life has been your birth. I’m not saying I want to see the same light in your eyes when you beget your first child, but I want you to remember that you are now where I am.”
“What’re you saying, amma?”
“You were not born a woman, and you are now becoming one. You were born to your father and me, but this is the time when your womanhood precedes your claim of being our daughter.” She felt a gentle warmth on her knee, coursing slowly down until any fire that could once burn her skin was extinguished. Paro’s tears were come, together with her acknowledgment. “You are my daughter, too, kanna, and I have always wanted you to know that simply aspiring to be like your father is stopping you from being who you really are. Your marriage does not reveal the face of that Parvati, but with your marriage, you will face fights of your own that your father did not clear first by himself.”
“Don’t you cry, kanna, don’t you cry. I only want you to know how it feels to choose your freedom, how it feels to take responsibility for the world and not just yourself. It’s a wonderful world, kanna, but it is also one that will teach you severe lessons that you need to learn. I want you to exit this 19-year old power struggle, kanna-”
Paro could hold it no longer, the tears no longer escaping her one by one, no longer falling like beads on her mother’s leg, but flowing, gently and slowly, out of the corner of her closed eyes. She was not sad; she did not cry in sorrow but in understanding, which is a terrible thing. Knowledge of potential begins with the graduation of ages, but understanding forces itself upon the mind only when the faith of those many years lies shattered. Paro knew she was now a woman, a young woman, a sapling seeded long ago into the soil but only now shedding the dew on its leaves. Her eyes, heavy from the mental fatigue, wouldn’t open till down, Kausalya knew, and she rocker her as she had all those years ago when she was just a little child.
Mahendran watched from the door, the dejection of a battle’s twilight showing in his old eyes. Even as the fruits of the coarse balance he had struck all these years ripened within his chest, he sat down as his breath gave way, and reassured himself she was safer now. Now that only the triumph of her victories could and would shoulder the despair of her losses.
By the time dawn arrived in its dull orange splendour, the women of the house were already busy adding the final touches to the elaborate feast arranged for their relatives coming from all over the state. Kausalya’s other sisters and Paro’s cousins had arrived by bus early in the morning, all of them eager to lend a hand for what surely was shaping up to be the most celebrated marriage in the village for decades. At 8 o’clock, precisely, the procession would commence from their door and wind itself all around the village before reaching the temple for their cast’s deity on the outskirts. There were only 30 minutes left to go and Paro was nowhere to be seen. Mahendran became anxious, looking from bedroom to bedroom. Finally, as he turned back towards the door, he saw her there. The glasses she usually wore were off, as they had been for a few minutes yesterday, and for the first time in many years, he noticed a thin streak of kohl under those eyes. The tears were gone, and in their stead was a wide smile, resplendent as the morning’s sun. She’d heard him come and turned towards him.
Even a little more than a week ago, he had been dreading this moment, this moment which his Parvati could only have comprehended as betrayal. Now, however, he felt none of that fear; in that moment of liberation, he smiled to himself. “Good morning, appa!” With the sound of his daughter’s laughter, he led the way out into the streets, into a wonderful world.