Small-pox was ravaging Bandilanka. The grounds were covered with bodies waiting to be cremated.
“Send the untreatable cases home!” the local doctor directed the two nurses on call. “There is no room for them here.”
Venkateshwara Rao whispered:
“Just one glimpse – one glimpse of our daughter!”
Gayatri shook her head.
“The doctor says it is too dangerous – the infection.”
Venkateshwara Rao tried to nod. The sores were rapidly closing his eyes. He could make out the faint form of his wife.
“From the door, perhaps?” he whispered again, every word hurting his throat.
Gayatri ran into the next room and returned with a tiny bundle in her arms.
“May God bless and keep you, my daughter,” he murmured. His eyes closed. The room became very still. Gayatri bent her head as her tears bathed the tiny body of daughter Sarada.
“Come, daughter!” Her father’s voice softly brought her back to the unforgiving path of the living. Your mother-in-law wants to see you.”
She drew back. What would the in-laws think? That it was her fault? That it was because of her sins from a previous birth? She felt the baby in her arms – sound asleep. Would they, would she want to take her child away?
She stepped into the drawing room, followed by her father. The father-in-law was sitting in the most comfortable armchair. His wife stood behind him like a sentinel.
“Brother-in-law,” she heard him address her father, “Once the cremation is over, we will return to Guntur – with our daughter-in-law.”
The mother-in-law stepped out from behind the armchair.
“You need not bring anything for yourself. Just get the child’s clothes and anything else you need for her.”
“Yes, atha,” Gayatri murmured, keeping her eyes lowered to the floor. Why doesn’t she look at my child, at her granddaughter? Does she think this innocent child is responsible for her father’s death? Baby Sarada opened her eyes as if sensing her mother’s distress. She pushed her mouth against her mother’s breast, and made loud sucking sounds.
“If you will excuse me, atha, I have to …”
“Yes, yes,” the mother-in-law said impatiently. “Go!”
She sat on the cot, released the buttons on her wet blouse, and felt her child’s mouth unerringly finding the nipple. The tears from her eyes mingled with the milk that fed Sarada. A little later she lovingly placed the sleeping child in the cradle. As she straightened up, she felt her father’s hand on her shoulder.
“Gayatri! Listen to me, daughter!”
“Nanna! What if … what if … “
“That is what I have come to tell you. I will not allow them to take you away, Gayatri. We, your mother and I, have decided …”
She said, disbelief tingeing her voice:
“Can you do that? Can you really do that?”
“Tradition might dictate otherwise, daughter. But a tradition that tells us that a daughter is less important than a son needs to be questioned.”
Gayatri stared at her father. He never ceased to astonish her.
“What if the in-laws create trouble? I don’t want to …”
Her father sat down and sighed.
“And here I thought you wanted to study, to educate yourself, to make something of yourself. Of course, if you wish to go to Guntur and live the life of a widow, we cannot prevent …”
“No, no, Nanna!” she interrupted. “Of course not! My husband – your son – and I talked about it often. He wanted me to go back to college.”
“Well then, we will only be following his wishes.”