(English Translation of the original Tamil novel ‘Paalangal’)
(Chapter – I)

1907 – 1931

Pattamma sat up.

She rubbed her hands, held them in front of her face, and opened her eyes slowly. She looked at the lines on her palms in the dim light. She pulled out her wedding-chain from under her sari, held it to her eyes, and murmured a short prayer.

She patted back her tousled hair and tied it up in a knot. She stood up and, with a look around, she straightened her sari that was in disarray.

The cow mooed from the backyard. Somewhere a cock crowed. Stepping carefully to avoid treading on the others still sleeping on the floor, she opened the backdoor and came out of the house. Stars twinkled in the greying night. Flowers on the plants along the fence, about to bloom, glimmered lightly. The air held the fragrance of the jasmine on the bough.

She picked up the vessels to be cleaned and left them at the well. She took out a piece of coconut husk from a pile, stripped it into thin strands, and collected a handful of the ash that lay heaped near the straw-loft. Going back to the well, she let a large vessel down it with a rope, and drew water. Sitting on her haunches, she cleaned the vessels thoroughly with the coconut strands, ash and water, set them aside, went back to the house where she collected from a niche in the wall some homemade toothpowder, brushed her teeth and gargled. She washed her face with water, and dried herself with the end of her sari.

She returned to the house, put a saffron mark on her forehead, trimmed the oil-lamp in the room for worship, lit it, prostrated herself, and prayed to the goddess that it should be a good day.

Again she went to the backyard, mixed a handful of cowdung in water, walked through the house and opened the frontdoor. She made a gesture, inviting the Goddess of Fortune into the house, and sprinkled some water. For good measure, she went back to the backyard and sprinkled some water there also, asking the Goddess of Ill Fortune to go away. She then returned to the front of the house, poured the cowdung water on the front yard, swept it thoroughly; and drew an auspicious design on the ground with rice-flour, not as elaborately as usual since it was getting late.

Her father-in-law would be up soon, and her sisters-in-law were not available to help with the housework today. Her younger sister-in-law, Sarada, would be over her period only two days from now. And the youngest, Komu, had gone to her parents’ house to have her first baby. It certainly was not easy to manage the house single-handedly even for three days.

She hurried into the kitchen, removed the ash from the dead fire in last night’s clay-oven, went out and added it to the heap of ash near the straw. She then cleaned the oven, smeared it with watered cowdung, and drew a simple pattern on it with rice-flour. Now it will be ready for use at night.

She now fed into the other oven, which had been cleaned and prepared last night, coconut husk and dried cowdung shards, struck a match and lit it. It blazed immediately. Thank goodness. Her mother-in-law, Meenamba, would have been outraged if Pattamma had used more than one match to light the oven. Among the household virtues a woman should possess, thrift loomed high on Meenamba’s list. “What is the use of the husband slaving away in rain and shine if his wife uses up all his income on boxes of matches?” was the way she would have put it.

And she would say: “In our days we never even used a match-stick. We would light a small stick of broom in the flame of the night-lamp, and use it for lighting the fire. As soon as it caught, we would wedge in a slow-burning cowdung ball that would smoulder all day long. When we wanted to light a fire again, we would simply blow on the cowdung ball until its fire showed, and put it among the husk, which would catch fire immediately. That is how a smart woman does her household work.”

A lively and active woman, Meenamba died suddenly after just a two-day fever. Four years ago. Since then Pattamma has had the entire running of the house in her charge.

She boiled some water, poured it into another vessel, and added two handfuls of coffee powder to it. She let it set for half a minute, and then strained the coffee through a thin piece of cloth, kept specially for the purpose. The coffee powder was nearly used up, would last for only one more day. Her father-in-law though had just brought a good quantity of seeds from Thanjavur. She would roast and powder some of that afternoon, and keep the rest to be done with the help of Sarada when she could come again into the house after the ritual purification.

The milkman had already milked the cow. Pattamma poured the milk into a vessel, set it on the fire to boil, and went to the hall to wake up her brood. She shook awake her eldest daughter, Sivakamu, who was lost to the world. “Here, wake up, Sivakamu. Do you know what time it is? Girls may not sleep so late, it is not nice.”

Sivakamu yawned. Sat up. Wailed: “Mother, you wake me up every day before dawn. I am so sleepy.”

“That is as it may be, but get up.”

“But Kondu is still sleeping?”

“Kondu is a boy, he needs more sleep. Stop talking back to me and make yourself useful. Aunt Sarada is not in the house to help. Go brush your teeth, sweep and clean the cowshed. Hurry up. Grandfather will be up any minute.”

Sivakamu rolled up her mat, put it away, and went to the backyard. She cleaned her teeth and washed herself. She let the cow, Lakshmi, out from the shed, and tied it to a coconut tree. She swept the shed and removed the dung, and cleaned the floor with two large pailfuls of water. By the time she finished the chores her mother had given her, it was broad daylight.

Grandfather Kalahasthi had returned from the canal after his ablutions, had his coffee, and had gone to the front porch. Ganapathi, Pattamma’s husband, and the uncles were gathered beside the well to clean their teeth and wash. Pattamma rattled off comments and orders at Sivakamu, who had now come in.

1907 – 1931

“Don’t stand there like a statue. Wake up the kids – the elders are all up already – and clean out the hall. Wipe the floor twice, not just once as they do during funeral ceremonies – it is very inauspicious. Do your work carefully and seriously. When you have mopped and wiped, sweep the floor again as long as you are about it. Do you know that the Goddess of Earth won’t put her child on a floor that has not been wiped and swept? Do you follow me? Get going.”

Sivakamu went to the hall, and woke up her male cousins, Kondu and Nana, and her younger sisters, Parvathi and Lakshmi. Just as she was finishing wiping and sweeping the hall, Pattamma was at her again. “What do you think you are doing – performing a dance with the broomstick? You must learn to bend low and sweep, and you must take your time over it. As they say, a prancing bullock will never carry a load. If you are so lackadaisical about housework, no one will blame you. They will blame me for bringing you up so badly.”

“I am sorry, mother, but the broom has worn out.”

“I am sorry, mother, but the broom has worn out.”

The children ranged themselves in the passage and sat on the floor. Pattamma mixed cold rice with thick curds, mashed it with some salt, and served it along with curry made the previous night, putting heaps of the mixture into the leaf-cups the children held in their hands.

Pattamma then did the girls’ hair. She rubbed fresh gingelly oil in their hair, combed it smoothly, and plaited it.

Sivakamu gathered the remnants of the cold rice in a vessel, added a slice of lime pickle, went to the backyard, and called out to her aunt, Sarada, who was sitting out of sight behind the cow-shed so that her menstrual pollution might not affect anybody through contact or even propinquity. Sivakamu said: “I’ve brought some cold rice and lime pickle. Would you like a mango – I can pluck one from the tree?”

“No need, dear. Some would have fallen down, and I will pick up one myself, when I sweep the backyard. Go now, if grandfather sees you lingering here, he will not like it.”

Sivakamu set out some straw for the cow, went in, picked up her vessel, and joined her mother in the dauly trek to the Cauvery for a bath, and for procuring drinking water for the house. They crossed the street, passed the Iyenar temple, went through the bamboo grove, and there was the Cauvery, flowing merrily along. Sivakamu hoisted up her petticoat, tied it below her shoulders, and swam for a while. When she came back to her mother, chilled and giggly, she was promptly given advice again by Pattamma. “Mix the turmeric with the mud and rub it hard on your arms and legs, so you won’t grow hair like a man, and your skin will glow.”

Sivakamu did as she was told. Both mother and daughter dunked their heads several times under water, muttering a prayer the while. They climbed out of the water and walked home with their vessels full.

Pattamma started the cooking. Sivakamu picked flowers from the backyard for her grandfather’s daily worship, and prepared the sandal paste. She sat for a while with Kondu and Nana on the front porch where they were being taught their lessons by grandfather. She also tried writing on the spread-out sand that served as a slate.

Lunch was finished, Pattamma cleaned up the kitchen, and sat down to roast coffee seeds. Seeing she did not have a sufficient quantity of cowdung balls, she called out to Sivakamu, who was playing a cowrie-shells game with her sisters, to ask Sarada to prepare some cowdung balls. Mildly irritated at being disturbed in her game, Sivakamu nevertheless went to the backyard where her aunt was making cowdung patties. Without going near her, Sivakamu shouted out to her: “Mother says that there are not enough cowdung balls. She wants you as long as you are making the patties, to make also a basket of the cowdung balls.” Sarada said she had already made some, which Sivakamu reported to her mother.

At this moment someone called out. Pattamma said: “It sounds like farmer Munian. See what he wants.”

Sivakamu went out and soon came back with a couple of thazhampoo flowers. She explained: “Munian had to go to Thillaistanam on business. There he saw the thazhampoo and picked up a couple for us.”

Thazhampoo is a very fragrant flower, unusual for being very long. It has to be split and woven in a criss-cross fashion into a girl’s plait, and the result is quite beautiful.

With an irritation that was clearly pretended, Pattamma said: “As if I don’t have enough to do. Anyway clean the flowers and split them in the proper way. I will do the plaiting for you later on.” By the time the girls had the flower stitched on to their hair and had the arrangement topped with other flowers from the garden, it was two thirty.

Pattamma lit the fire again, prepared coffee, which she shared with the menfolk, and then made dosai, a pancake delicacy. After the elders had eaten, she gave the children curd rice and pieces of dosai for taste. She also prepared the meal for the night. It was now four o’clock. She washed her face, combed her hair, and put a saffron mark on her forehead. It was beginning to grow dark. She lit the lamp in the room for worship, and also lit the lamps in the four corners, and several standing oil lamps, using castor oil and heavy wicks made from the cotton in the garden.

Around seven, she put out the corner lamps dropping a little milk on them. She went to the passage and asked the men in for their dinner. She laid banana leaves for them, sprinkled water to clean them, and served their food.

As they began to eat the grandfather, Kalahasthi, said to Ganapathi, his son and Pattamma’s husband: “When you were out in the field, Cousin Ramu had come here. I wanted to discuss with you what he had to say, but you were not to be found.” Ganapathi replied apologetically that he had gone to Thiruvaiyaru, as he had heard that good samba paddy was available there. The old man said: “He said that several people are asking for Suppuni’s hand in marriage for girls in their families. He wanted to know whether we are interested in Suppuni for Sivakamu. He said they would wait for our response before considering anyone else.”

Pattamma, who was standing behind the door listening to the conversation, felt a gush of joy. Suppuni was a handsome young boy, knew the rituals, and was well mannered.

The old gentleman continued: “Sivakamu has completed seven, and Suppuni is eleven. The ages match. Suppuni’s star is very auspicious. I studied the children’s horoscopes and they match very well. If you and your wife agree, we can settle the details next Friday. What do you say?”

Ganapathi looked in the direction of his wife. In these days when young girls were given in marriage to thirty and forty year old men as their second or third wives, Sivakamu was clearly fortunate in attracting the attention of the family of Suppuni, an extremely eligible young boy.

Pattamma spoke softly from behind the door. “When Father has spoken, what have we to add? Whatever he suggests will be only for the best.”

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