“Bandilanka’s Forgotten Lives”

Here’s a story for all of you who are interested in protecting the lives of female children who are sold into lifelong bondage. The title of this short story is “The fate of a child widow”:

The old man cradled the frail lifeless body of fifteen-year-old Shankar.

“My karma! What sins did I commit in my previous life to deserve this?” he lamented. After six girls from a previous wife who had died while giving birth the sixth child, his second wife had finally given him a son.

He cried out:

“Ananta,[1] who should have adorned your body as the sacred thread, has taken you back to his holy abode. You will be unable to light my funeral pyre and perform Śrāddha[2] so that I may go to paradise and not be reborn as a lower-caste being. Raama, Raama! Shiva, Shiva!”

Five-year-old Sundari sat in a corner, trying not to sleep. She wanted to take off the heavy wedding sari. She looked at her mother for a sign, any sign. The women were crying, the men were smoking bidis. She wriggled and tried to scratch her back. The sari’s gold border chafed her skin.

“Come, child,” her older aunt said, holding out her hand. “It is time.”

“Time for what, Doddamma?”[3]

“Don’t ask questions.”

Doddamma led her into the bedroom where she helped her take off her sari.

“You will wear this from now on,” Doddamma said, showing her a white sari.

“But … but Doddamma, it is so … so … no color! I love colors. Why can’t I …”

“Quiet, child! Your husband is dead. It is tradition. As a widow you are not allowed to wear any colors. And … come here!”

Doddamma wiped the red bottu off Sundari’s forehead, removed the red and gold bangles she had chosen before the ceremony. Sundari’s mother entered the room as Doddamma was helping her tie the white sari.

“Raama, Raama! What have I done to deserve such a daughter?” she wailed. “Even before the sky is stained red, you have been robbed of your life!”[4]

She knelt before Sundari and held her tiny hands.

“My little baby, my Sundari, it is your karma that has brought this fate on you.”

“But Amma, what have I done? I didn’t kill my husband. A snake did it – I heard Doddamma telling the others. They killed the snake, didn’t they? So …”

Manikyam kept quiet, silently wiping the tears coursing down her cheeks.

“Can I go play, Amma? The others are playing paandi[5] outside.”

“No, my little one. You have to stay inside the house.”

“But this sari, it is … it keeps falling down. And … and I don’t like white, Amma! Can’t I wear the pretty red one I was wearing for the wedding?”

“No, my child,” Manikyam said, fiercely hugging the child to her breasts, willing her own strength to enter her daughter’s trembling body. She remembered an elderly aunt, a child widow, slaving away in the kitchen, hiding her face, abhorred by the community for daring to outlive her husband. They called her ‘Picchavva’ or mad mother. She remembered the wisps of grey hair that sneaked out from under the white sari that covered her head. And she remembered the barber coming into the courtyard where the women bathed and shaving Picchavva’s head. The children would run up to her and mock her baldness.

“Not yet!” she murmured to herself.

She looked at her daughter’s luxuriant black braids. The door opened again.

Her brother’s voice whispered:

“No time to waste, Manikyam Akka! Washerman Veeranna is waiting with his bullock cart behind the grain stores. You know what to do, Akka?”

She nodded dumbly.  Her brother’s strong arms picked up Sundari’s slight figure.

“Are you going to play with me, Raju Mama?” Sundari asked as they slipped through the door. Manikyam waited a couple of minutes, picked up a pair of scissors, and cut herself in the arm. Then she rushed to the window leading to the side of the house and opened it. She took a deep breath and screamed:

“Help! Help! They threatened me with a knife! Help, help!”

The door was flung open. Her sister rushed in, followed by her husband and other male members of the family.

“What … what happened?”

“A man! He rushed in, struck me with a knife, grabbed Sundari!”

She collapsed onto the floor, making sure the others saw the wound in her arm.

“Raama, Raama!” husband Avadhani cried out. “She’s hurt.”

“I’ll look after her,” Manikyam’s sister Rukmini said. “Go! Get our child back!”

They turned to the door.

“Wait!” Manikyam cried out. “He escaped through that window,” she said, pointing to a window that led to the side of the house, away from the back road. Avadhani raced to the window and climbed out, followed by his three sons.

“Where are we going, Raju Mama?” Sundari asked, as he lifted up her tiny five-year-old body and placed it in the bullock cart.

“Somewhere safe, Chitti Thalli[6],” he said with a smile. “A place called Sweden.”

“Sweden, Sweden,” she repeated, letting the unfamiliar word roll down her tongue. “In Sweden, will I be able to put on my red sari?”

“You can wear whatever you want, little one. You have to try to sleep. We have a long journey ahead of us.”

She closed her eyes, then opened them at once.

“That voice, Raju Mama. It’s Washerman Veeranna’s. But I don’t hear anybody else. I’m scared, Raju Mama.”

Raju laughed as his niece hid her face under his shirt.

“Look at me,” he urged lovingly. “It is not a ghost. Veeranna is talking to his beloved bullocks Suri and Shiva, just like his father did.”

Sundari perked up and smiled.

“Really? He can talk bullock? And do they talk back? I can’t hear their voices.” she asked.

He smiled.

“Well, only those who love them and feed them and care for them can understand their language.”

“Then I will do that too, when I’m older. Raju Mama, does Sweden … does Sweden have bullocks?”

“I am sure it has. They’ll look a bit different, of course! But you will learn not just bullock, but lots of other things as well, at your new school.”

“New school?”

Sundari fell silent. Her tiny face puckered up, and tears filled her eyes.

“But Raju Mama, I can’t! What about my friends here? I don’t want to make new friends!”

“But you must understand that it is good to meet other people.”

He wiped the tears from her cheeks.

“And you do want to wear your red sari, don’t you? And other nice colored saris and skirts.”

Sundari looked at him.

“No … no white sari?”

“No, Chitti thalli.[7] In Sweden. That is where your Prakash Mama lives. And you will be staying with him.”

“Oh! I’ll get to see my cousins Vasu and Neelu.”

She lapsed into silence, then burst out:

“Vasu and Neelu didn’t want to play with me when they visited us. Why didn’t they want to play with me, Raju mama?”

Raju sighed. His niece and nephew from Sweden had been obnoxiously intolerant of the ways of Bandilanka. They had laughed at Sundari’s long skirt, pretended to puke at the Indian style toilets, and wasted the food their grandmother had lovingly prepared. His brother Prakash had waited a full day before taking them into their bedroom. A half hour later, the kids had come out visibly chastened. Raju had asked Prakash:

“How did you perform this miracle, brother?”

“Well, I … I described my own childhood here. Then I talked about how I had to adjust to Swedish ways, all the problems I encountered, my own prejudices, the way I laughed at what I perceived to be ‘those barbaric Western ways.’ I think the kids got the message. They are old enough to spell big words like prejudice and bigotry and narrow-mindedness, but understanding just what they mean? Perhaps not. Perhaps the only way is to make them walk through similar experiences.”

  Sundari’s voice brought him back to the present.

“Raju mama, what about my friends here … Papayee, Ammadu … and Suramma, my very best friend … she’ll come too, won’t she?”

“Perhaps later, Chitti thalli! Now, close your eyes and go to sleep.”

Raju was to remember this conversation sixteen years later.

It was graduation day. Proudly displaying the vibrant colors of the Swedish Red Cross University College, Sundari marched up to the podium and received the Bachelor of Science in Public Health. Vice Chancellor Allison Robbinson smiled warmly. As she handed over the degree, she said:

“Summa cum laude! Congratulations, Ms. Kalluri Sundari! You are a credit and an honor to your country and ours.”

[1] In the Bhagavad-Gita (‘Song of the Lord,’ part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata) Lord Krishna says, ‘Among the serpents I am Ananta.’ Ananta or the Adisesha is the infinite divine snake with its endless coils floating in the waters of creation, upon which Narayana (Brahman) rests. Ananta represents the infinite eternal materiality or primal energy.

[2] A ritual performed to pay homage to one’s ‘ancestors,’ especially to one’s dead parents.

[3] Mother’s older sister.

[4] “Stained in red” implies menarche.

[5] Hopscotch

[6] Literally “little mother.” Used as a term of affection, usually for young girls.