Second, Not Secondary

My grandmother was married at the age of thirteen to my grandfather who was nineteen years older, and a widower. His first wife had passed away leaving behind a son, and his mother-in-law continued to live with them, presumably having no other family. My grandmother remembered having attended his wedding – the first one of course – as a little girl, related as she was to the bride.

Matching horoscopes was a later practice, so my grandfather sought assurance about my grandmother’s longevity by having their horoscopes matched, not having done it the first time. The thought of a thirteen year old marrying at all, and then marrying someone so much older, is a shock to me now. Earlier I had never worked out their ages, and just the idea of my grandmother having become stepmother to a six-year-old felt wrong to me. But when I asked her about it, she said it was a common practice in those days – in the 1920s – and that her father had to face opprobrium for having an unmarried daughter over the age of nine at home. So, being too poor to find an affluent first-time bridegroom, he was relieved at marrying both his daughters to widowers.

But my grandfather was an honourable man and unlike men of his time, he never treated his wife with disrespect or harshness. He believed more in the division of labour at home, and carried out all his duties impeccably. My grandmother did her part without any expectations, or indeed any mistakes, and did all her work without complaining or nagging, and always wore a sweet smile on her face. Everyone who knew her never fails to mention her red kumkum bindi, all the more bright on her fair skin, and the smile which always greeted them. She was always hospitable and ready with a tumbler-davara of filter coffee, and never failed to ask visitors if they had eaten and if they had not, would make sure they did not go away hungry. She had no servants to help her nor the array of appliances we have in our kitchens. She only had a warm heart and sincerity in everything she did, and a lot of love. To me, she was a saint. She treated my grandfather with immense respect, even through the worst of times when they had very little money and my grandfather would bring home distant relatives to stay or arrange Sai Bhajans on Thursdays and expect my grandmother to feed all the devotees. No one ever felt unwelcome in their house.

My grandmother had a younger sister who was called Chinna and we all called her Chinna Chithi. She was also married to a widower but her husband was not as admirable. He was known to have ill-treated her and she had her own mother-in-law who made sure that she was starved and treated like a slave at home. We did not see much of her even though she was in Madras as my grandparents were, because she was not allowed the freedom even to visit them. My grandmother would sometimes go and see her and it was always a sad tale she carried back. Chinna Chithi’s husband owned a large coconut plantation along with a large house but she was not permitted to offer coconut water to her visitors. Her husband and mother-in-law were jealous for some reason of my grandmother and her family and the visits were neither frequent nor long. Better times, relatively speaking, came along, and one day Chinna Chithi went to Hong Kong alone to visit her by-then married daughter. Chithi was illiterate unlike my grandmother, and we marvelled that she was able to get off at Singapore and take the connecting flight to Hong Kong, and back again. This was in the seventies, before the cellphone or even STD phone calls.

Both of them, my grandmother and Chinna Chithi, and their spouses, my dear grandfather included, have passed on. Twenty years or more have gone, and  the men and women in our society have changed so much, but I wish some things had not. Their hearts full of love, they smiled their way through lives which were so difficult that we cannot even begin to imagine it. I cannot think of many younger women whose granddaughters would remember them with so much love and admiration.

Young women today are proud that they are standing up for themselves but sometimes they fight even when it is not necessary. Tilting at windmills, they lose out on what is already theirs to take, and anger, not love, is what is on display. A sense of entitlement overcomes the need to be fair.

I can only feel, that we may be entitled to many things, but sometimes it is better to pass. Where there is love, making peace is not surrendering to the enemy. For the enemy is within, not outside you. Only a woman who is at peace with herself has love to share.

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