My mother still remembers the morning journey to Alleppey. The State Transport bus, all rusted metal, heaved and huffed its way through a plume of red, sending curious onlookers scurrying for cover on what was a humid August day. My grandfather, uneasy and sweaty, had a thick wad of currency notes in a cloth bag, securely tied to his hip, concealed by the overflowing hems of his white shirt.
The road, studded with copious red earth, took the searing heat in its stride by letting every bus play a part in a regular vaudeville whose prominent colors were million shades of red. The houses, the trees, and every detail in the proximity of the road were doused in a shower that was relentless.
Each bite of life was jarred with the red sand caught in your mouth.
My mother clutched their lunch packets, excited by her first journey to the coastal town. Grandmother had woken up early that morning, cooked the rice and ground slivers of fresh coconut along with tamarind and few spices, and packed the rice and the coconut chutney balls into wrinkled banana leaves, carefully disciplined by a moment’s exposure to the heat of the wooden fire, for easy folding.
Grandfather had insisted on not wasting money eating food from restaurants and besides, they were too proud to be seen eating from such public places.
My mother was engaged to be married, later that month, and the purpose of this journey to Alleppey, 50 kilometers away, was to buy the jewelry meant for the dowry. The biggest jeweler in town, Bhimas, was promptly chosen for the purpose and my grandfather expected to get full worth for the money he intended to spend.
The dowry had been fixed at a very decent 30 sovereigns, after a prolonged discussion between the fathers, held out of earshot of the relatives present, the groom totally at loss about what transpired while the bride-to—be, watched the proceeding from a dark corner of the nearby room. Her younger sisters, all huddled around her, took a peek at the prospective groom standing outside and decided that he was fine-looking enough for the dowry that was decided upon.
It was noon by the time they reached Alleppey. The sun was at its fuming best and Grandfather wiped his brow with the white towel that hung from his shoulder. It was not difficult to make out that he was moderately well-off, his wiry, tall frame, decked in white cottons, the mundu and shirt with the towel very proudly draped over the shoulder. His demeanor was serious, accentuated by the black frame spectacles that perched on his prominent nose. He rarely smiled, possibly out of habit as a prominent shopkeeper in his village, who frowned on all types of attempts by the not-so-affluent customers to buy provisions on credit. His provision store had its customers within a 10 km radius and, being the only one in the area, it had its monopoly.
He had worked hard to get there and forgetting to smile had become a way of life.
“Walk faster, Ammu.” Grandfather’s voice floated down carrying an irritated tinge embroidered around its edges. Ammu, my mother, was lost in the sights around her and she felt that her eyes were not fast enough to take it all in. The voice was gruff as always, undiminished and uncompromising, in all of Ammu’s 24 years of growing up. It had never changed for any instance of mirth and, probably, took on a darker shade when things went wrong. Ammu did not prefer anything to go awry today and she pulled the hem of her half-sari tighter around her while cajoling her big-town curiosity under a mask of hurried intensity that translated into a faster pace on her bare feet.
Ammu was dark, almost ebony, unlike any of her younger sisters. That was also the reason why, in spite of being the eldest, she did not get to marry first amongst the sisters. A prominent Ezhava money-lender from Cherthala, a hamlet north of Alleppey had approached her father with a marriage proposal for his son, couple of years back, and had quickly asked for the second daughter, Valli’s hand in marriage, once they had seen Ammu. Until that incident, Ammu had never really bothered about herself and, it continued to rankle her every time a proposal came her way and, subsequently, went unrealized.
It had been the 11th or 12th one, she had lost count long ago, that was about to culminate in marriage finally. The first time had dent her badly and a quiet anger had mushroomed itself within her over the years. Quiet anger – that is how I have always differentiated her from my aunts to this day.