Mala's Story


This story is loosely based on the story of a mother and daughter I knew for a couple of years during our stay in Bangalore in 1986. The story has been fictionalized; the names changed as well but the basic core of the story is very real. I was a girl of twelve when my mother told me this poignant tale, for I had witnessed the rather appalling and heart wrenching change of the girl in question. I had made a quiet promise to never get married, if at all I did, till I was financially independent. Of course, I had to convince myself that studies were a nightmare I had to go through which would save me from all the bogey men and their terrors!


 Like most girls, Mala had been ingrained with the idea of growing up to get married, have a home of her own and children to look after. At sixteen, she was impatiently waiting to have a taste of marital bliss. Her marriage had been fixed with her maternal uncle, Raghu, as is prevalent in some states in southern India. This tradition could have stemmed up in order to keep the family property within the family. Mala’s mother, Bhairavi, was at ease that her daughter would be in good hands. Her brother had always had a soft spot for her daughter and had always brought her little gifts when he had come to visit them. A box of colourful glass bangles or earrings and of course, that purse in gawdy pink which had been Mala’s favourite possession for a long while. Then again, her mother-in-law would be none other than her own mother and Mala’s favourite grandmother. However, her brother had taken a wife and put an end to all the conjectures till recently.

Mala had had her period a few months prior which was later than the other girls and there was much speculation whether she had a defect in her system and could bear children at all. Her 36-year-old Uncle was magnanimous about it. He would marry her, regardless. “Of course, he would marry her”, the women whispered cattily among themselves; he had been a widower for over a year now. Bhairavi wanted Mala to turn 18 before she let her daughter get married much to her brother’s irritation but he didn’t cause trouble because he was aware of his sister’s nasty temper. If she got Mala married to someone else, he would never find such a young and pretty girl for himself so he made an effort to look like the bigger person and Mala fell heads over heels in love with her uncle and husband-to-be. Secretly, she was irritated with her mother as well. She didn’t want to work as a peon in the school where her mother was an ayah. She knew her husband would provide for her and she could spend her time happily at home. He had promised her that, that very morning in fact, as he gave her a new set of rainbow coloured bangles with gold specks on them. He had embraced her while no one was looking and had given her a peck on the cheek. She had blushed and now more than anything she wanted to be 18. What was the big deal?

Mala, despite her uncle being besotted with her, never felt pretty as she was dark and had a rather large nose, for which she had been the butt of many a joke. She, as a matter of fact, had wondered with great anguish whether she’d ever get married. When she had learnt from her grandmother, at the age of thirteen, that she had been promised to her favourite Uncle, she was ecstatic. This was short-lived as her grandmother, seeing Mala’s eyes light up with hope, quickly revealed that she had an aunt and so it was not to be. Mala started agonizing about her aunt, Revathy. This promise was obviously not happening if he remained married to her as it was against the law and her mother would have none of it. She had prayed every single day, since then, for his wife to leave him by the time she came of age. When her aunt died the previous year, she was overjoyed. She did feel a pang of guilt but then she told ‘Devi’, whom she worshipped, that she had just asked for the wife to leave him and not die and that since ‘Devi’ had actually, taken his wife with her to the heavens above, she took it as a sign from the Goddess that this match was indeed made in Heaven. Why couldn’t her mother see what was evident? She knew the law of course, of 18 being the legal age but then certificates could be…

Charming Bhairavi was one of the few fortunate ladies who just had one daughter and a husband who did not drink and create “gallata” (drama/tantrum) but one who worked hard and dutifully gave her all the money to run their home. Shekhar was an orphan who used to roam about their village and Bhairavi’s mother was fond of him. She gave him food often and bought him a new shirt on Pongal. He stayed around the house more and more and it seemed almost natural for Bhairavi and Shekhar to tie the knot. Their bond was strong because they always felt like best friends and family. She knew that this luck was a one-off boon and her daughter may not strike gold. She wasn’t as charming and being the only child had been demanding. Even though she was marrying her uncle, Bhairavi knew that her brother was no saint. She could see he was genuinely fond of Mala, but what could you say of men? He had no kids from his first marriage either and she was concerned about that as well. There were indeed a few red flags but when she saw her daughter’s happiness and her brother spoiling her, she decided she play along. She had two years to see where things would reach.

Two years flew by really fast, Bhairavi reflected, on the eve of Mala’s eighteenth Birthday. If only she knew how slowly it had moved for Mala and her brother. She looked at the innocent face of her sleeping daughter and sighed. She’d have to part with this fire brand and her frivolous ways soon. Her brother had been coming often and she knew he had been catching sly and quiet moments to get cozy with her daughter. Nothing had escaped her. She had turned a blind eye on purpose. At least, her daughter would be comfortable with the uncle to husband transition. She had been trying to pass on pearls of wisdom to her daughter but the latter wouldn’t listen. She was annoyed with her mother for not getting her married sooner. Now, as she watched her Mala snoring mildly, she was overcome with affection even though she wasn’t great at showing it. She silently prayed for her, feeling a bit queasy for some reason.

In the few months that led up to the marriage, Bhairavi felt increasingly uneasy and could not pin point at what this niggle was all about. She suddenly didn’t want Mala to marry Raghu. There was something different about him. She had started feeling uncomfortable as the day approached. Was this natural? Did every mother feel this way when her daughter got married? She tried talking to Shekhar but he said he was getting no ill feeling about this wedlock and it was too late in any case. Raghu had announced that he would be moving to Chennai with his wife so that she could be away from this little village and see city life and live like a queen. He had got a new job and a big enough home ready for her. Mala was ecstatic. Bhairavi looked at her mother. Had she known about this? Her mother looked just as shocked. When questioned, Raghu laughed it off and said “Doesn’t a man get to surprise his bride anymore?”

A week after the wedding ceremony, Raghu and beaming Mala bade everyone farewell and left. Bhairavi watched her daughter, dressed in a bright pink and green saree with bangles to match along with four gold bangles which she had gifted her, long strings of fresh jasmine in her hair and pearly white teeth flashing, wave out to her. She felt a strange void but more than that, a gnawing feeling that something was amiss.

Months went by with no news from her daughter or her brother and this got Bhairavi worried. She pestered her mother and Shekhar to plan a trip to Chennai. Neither wanted to go so she decided to go alone. She asked for leave from school and unannounced she left to surprise her daughter. She reached a small colony with pretty little houses and was so happy that her daughter was living a good life which was probably why she didn’t write to her or call. She went to the house with 34 written on it and rang the bell hoping to see her surprised and happy daughter. Instead, an angry woman opened the door and asked her who she was. Bhairavi explained after which the annoyed lady went in and dragged a feeble woman out asking loudly, “Is this idiot your daughter?” Seeing the nearly tattered saree and frail frame, she shook her head and turned to leave wondering how she would find her daughter now when “Amma, it’s me” came out from the girl’s throat. Bhairavi turned and looked stunned at the sobbing girl. “Mala! Is that you?” The girl stood weeping and shaking as Bhairavi moved to hug her daughter and the angry woman melted watching this touching reunion. Bhairavi asked the woman if she could finish the work for her daughter and then take her home. The woman yielded and Bhairavi, adept in whatever she did, quickly and neatly did the work and took leave. Her daughter was quiet as she led her mother to her home which looked nothing like the little houses in front. It was a small, dingy room with a small elevated place for the stove and a small toilet beside it. Is this the city life her brother had promised?

They were simple and poor people of the village but they had a neat place to live and not a rat hole, the stench of which was hardly bearable. She turned towards her daughter, heartbroken at her bare hands devoid of the bangles she loved, no kohl in her eyes just a small bindi drawn with that kohl pencil, no earrings and no mala (necklace) and worst of all, no trace of happiness on her young face. “Where is Raghu? Is this how he treats you?”, she asked. “You know Amma, I used to pray for his wife to leave him, now I wish he were dead”, she replied quietly. “He almost changed overnight. He became possessive. When we reached this shack, I was upset that he had lied to me after the pictures he had painted and he slapped me saying that I was ungrateful and spoilt. He said I deserved worse, considering that I was eyeing the men on the train and exchanging meaningful glances with them. He shouted enraged and pulled out the flowers from my hair. He called me names I cannot bear to utter. I was horrified Amma and suddenly I was so scared of him. He asked me to take out every piece of jewellery I had and all the bright sarees if I was pure indeed. I did that Amma. He went out with them and came back with four plain, dull cotton sarees and told me to wear only those. He took even the last saree that I had on and I don’t know where any of it is. I cannot even wear kohl in my eyes.” She bawled stopping in between to take a few gasps of breath. Six months of anguish and hurt came pouring out.

Apparently, he had started drinking and there was just enough for them to eat on most days. On one occasion, there was nothing to eat and she complained to him that she was starving and he beat her up telling her to find a job if she ate so much. She was sent by him to work the previous week onwards but he would keep tabs on her.

“Where is he now?”, Bhairavi demanded. She knew how to tackle her brother. “I don’t know Amma. Some people around here say he has another woman. When I confronted him, he thrashed me saying that I was hiding my guilt by projecting my shameful acts on him. Now, I pray there is another woman and that he falls in love with her so that he would leave me”, she said weakly.

Bhairavi asked her daughter to freshen up, took out her own saree and gave it to her to wear and dressed her up. She gave her the new set of bright pink bangles she had brought with her and a designer bindi to match. At long last, she saw her daughter smile. She looked like the ghost of Mala, sickly with sunken eyes but that smile brought the Sun out for Bhairavi. “There is nothing from this dirty shack that you need. You and I are returning to the village right now. We will deal with Raghu when he gets there. Let me see his guts.”

Thankfully, Mala wasn’t pregnant so after tending to her daughter and easing the scars of the six-month-old marriage, Bhairavi managed to get her the job of a peon all over again at the same school. In two months, Mala was back at work and unlike the Mala of the past who hated her work and just wanted to get married, she was enthusiastic with this new lease of life she had got, thanks to her wonderful mother whom she had cursed for two whole years till she got married.

Raghu had the audacity to return and ask for his wife. Bhairavi with the help of the school Principal had taken steps to get their divorce finalized. She knew that after her demise, neither would her husband nor Mala have the guts to liberate her daughter from this terrible marriage. She would have to do it now. Within a year, the legal issues were taken care for and Mala was free. In time, she started dreaming again of romances especially every time she saw a Prabhu starrer on the big screen and her mother laughed as she watched her incorrigible but now, responsible daughter come back to life.


The real story did not have a happy ending, at least while we were there. Having spoken to the mother, who was strong but not as fortunate as Bhairavi, it was evident that she had tried to teach her daughter to resign quietly to fate. Their salvation lay, possibly, in the passing on of the brother/uncle turned husband.


We are complete and capable in ourselves, irrespective of gender or class. We do not need anyone to take care of us. Let us understand this and liberate ourselves from situations that no longer serve us and trust in ourselves and our abilities more than we trust in those around us. Education- the knowledge and more importantly, the wisdom that comes from it- is what will let us reach true Freedom.




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