THE UNSUNG HEROINE (Prof. Sreedevi Krishnan)



Suma's hurried walk from the 'Tank stop' to her home turned into a desperate run, when she glanced at her watch showing 7 pm., almost  an hour later than her usual time of reaching home. She should have informed Padmakka about her delay in College. But, she was too wrapped up in assisting Dr. Pradhan, the Principal , in organizing the symposium even to notice the passing of time; still, no excuse for not telephoning home about the delay.

Even from a few yards away from her gate, Suma could spot the deep red sari of Padmakka, her husband Ram's eldest sister.  Suddenly, Suma remembered that it was the day Padmakka had planned to visit 'Karunai Illam', an orphanage in Mylapore, to distribute the dresses and sweets to its thirty inmates, in connection with the Tamil New Year.

As soon as Suma came nearer, Padmakka asked anxiously, "What happened Suma?
I was worried. It's well past 6 and  getting dark too",putting a protective arm around Suma's shoulders, Padmakka walked towards the house. The moment Suma felt the warmth of her affectionate sister in law's fingers on her shoulder, her exhausted feeling after a tiring day in her College, vanished without a trace.

"Sorry, Akka, I had some extra work in the College after my lectures. To be frank, I completely forgot your plan of going to Karunai Illam; otherwise I would've taken an auto and reached home earlier instead of the erratic and over-crowded bus. Sorry"

"That's all right dear. I was actually worried about your safety, especially when I hear almost daily about the chain-snatching in these areas. I don't have to tell you, how the present day youngsters even kill for just a gold chain or couple of bangles, thanks to the incredible price of gold .Anyway, have a quick wash and  taste some sweets I made for my grandchildren", said Padmakka, obviously referring to the inmates of the orphanage.

Gently pushing. and  leading Suma inside the living room, Padmakka--- Padma Raghavachari, started briefing her as usual about the situation at home.

"Suma, Sanju has gone to attend a farewell party in his School; Sruthi did her Exam well and  getting ready to come with me to Mylapore. Poor child, she helped me a lot in preparing the sweets and  packing the clothes for the children; it's really difficult to find such kind-hearted and helpful girls nowadays. Well, my brother and you are lucky, your family has my blessings, what else could I possibly give?" Padmakka said, choking with emotion.

Padmakka sighed deeply and went inside the kitchen.  Suma knew instantly that the old lady was missing her grandchildren, Anand and  Amrita, who were of the same age of Sanju and Sruthi .Poor Akka, she did not have a glimpse of her Doctor son, Hari and his family ever since she had come to stay with Ram and Suma, two years ago.

'How could anyone hate such an innocent, lovable old lady? How could her daughter in law drive her away from her place like that" Suma wondered……………

"Oh, Ma, You've come back! Athai was so worried. You should've telephoned her, when you were delayed." That was Sruthi, who appeared on the scene, carrying a duffel bag and
a sling bag.

Turning towards the kitchen, Sruthi said,   "Athai, I'm all set for our visit. I'll transfer the eating stuff from the duffel bag to my bag, The duffel bag is good for  toys and clothes, but your murukku  and other stuff  would lose its shape in that bag, , don't worry, I can carry the eating stuff in my sling bag , okay?"

Tasting a tiny piece of milk sweet, Padmakka's special items for the inmates of Karunai illam , Suma watched, with love ,admiration and a tinge of pride, her sister- in -law and daughter squatting on the floor , arranging dividing and re- arranging the items between the two bags.  Suma could not help noticing the striking resemblance between Padmakka and her daughter.Despite the short hair and mod attire, Sruthi had inherited Padmakka's brown eyes, aquiline nose, dimples and  even the cleft on her chin. Looking at the strange pair, Suma's mind raced back to the first day of her meeting Padmakka twenty years ago………..

Padmakka had been a real beauty: Suma distingly remembered the nine yardsNavy blue sari with dark red zari border which Padmakka had worn in the traditional Iyengar way, her glowing, sandalwood complexion with a mild yellow tinge due to the application of turmeric powder, her expressive large eyes, forehead adorned with a big vermilion 'pottu', her dazzling diamond studs and cluster of diamonds like shining bees on both her nostrils which flashed brilliantly with every movement of hers. To Suma, Padmakka's innocent face matched perfectly with Thomas Hardy's description of Tess, like Tess, in Padmakka's case too, phases of   her childhood still lurked from her innocent eyes, dimpled cheeks, sweet curve of her upper lip and
flawless complexion.

Now, time and  bitter experiences had taken their toll on Padmakka.Her once lustrous hair had thinned down considerably, showing streaks of grey here and there. Her   eyes, hidden under thick glasses, the wrinkled complexion and added kilos of weight, why, everything about her had changed except of course the warm, affectionate smile and the inherent child -like innocence……..

Suma had been dreadfully nervous to move into Ram's House after their simple wedding ceremony in Guruvayur Temple. Suma knew how Ram's people simply hated her and
could never accept her, as she belonged to "Thiyya' community in Malabar. Ram's people had of course tried their best to stop Ram from marrying Suma but their disapproval
even threat only strengthened his decision of marrying the charming girl, who had stolen his heart at first sight
The gentle, reassuring clasp of Ram's fingers around hers did nothing to stop her violent heart beats. Looking down to avoid the   glances of Ram's curious relatives, Suma inched forward, when she heard a musical voice, ``Stop, stop Ram, Suma, let me take Arati."
That was the first time Suma had set eyes on Padmakka, clad in a blue sari, standing in front of them with a silver platter. Looking at the innocent, smiling face, Suma felt a strange sense of relief. Leading them to the hall, Padmakka chatted as though she was her long lost friend, "Ah!  Ram told me you were pretty, my brother has a great sense of beauty, still, I did not know you were this pretty, this mauve shade  sari suits you very well , Ram is very lucky. Why do you look so scared, Suma? Come in Suma"
Putting a loving arm around Suma, Padmakka introduced her to everyone, ignoring the angry, hostile expression on everyone's face  except   her son,Hari's face.
Suma instantly liked Hari, Padmakka's only son, a third year Medical student.  Hari said, "Aunty, I've seen your photo, Uncle Ram showed your picture long ago. You look very much like Shobhana, do you see her pictures? I'm her great fan and I love Malayalam films,"

Suma felt quite at home in the company of Hari and Padmakka. She forgot the presence of the frowning faces around and enjoyed the delicious meal Padmakka prepared in honor of Ram and his bride and served, chatting continuously, "You know Ram likes this 'puliyodarai'and

ladies finger fry very much. Tell me your favorite dish, I'll make that next time you come here. Okay?"

Suma liked Padmakka a lot, her winning smile, gentle manners, continuous chatter and above all the love and affection she showered on her youngest brother Ram, had drawn Suma very close to her on the very first day of meeting her. Overflowing with the milk of human kindness, Padmakka had certainly made up more than enough for the 'cold shoulders' of all the others put together.

Suma only wondered how Padmakka could live with a man like Raghavachari, a tall  man with 'Iyengar' symbol adorning   his fore-head, bushy eyebrows and beady eyes, a few hairs growing confidently on the side of his long ears and a contemptuous curling of his upper lip with a perpetual frown, made him look a cruel, ruthless man
Fortunately, Hari looked like his mother, hopefully might have inherited her qualities too.
Later, from Ram, Suma had learnt the pathetic story of Padmakka's married life. Padmakka was a multi faceted personality; she was a bright student, excelled in music, dance, painting and embroidery.  As luck would have it, Raghavachari, a practicing lawyer and the only son of a rich landlord in Coimbatore, happened to meet Padmakka, who was barely 13, in a relative's place and expressed his deep desire to marry her, to his parents.
Padmakka's parents found the proposal irresistible as Raghavachari was extremely rich, highly educated, and belonged to an illustrious family.

It did not take much time for Padmakka's parents to realize their great mistake. Raghavachari was unscrupulous , sadistic and  an incorrigible gambler. He was so sadistic that he could not go to bed without beating his young bride at least twice a day.
By the time Hari was born after 5 years of the tortured existence of Padmakka, Rahgavachari was a financial wreck.  His love for races, alcoholism ,womanizing literally brought the family to the streets.

But, the strong-willed Padmakka had risen from the ashes like a phoenix and managed to get a teacher's job in a nearby School. Her meager pay, the income from music lessons and  private tuitions and occasional help from her brothers had enabled her to educate her son in Madras Medical College….

"Suma, we're leaving now, we'll come back by bus onlyand it's safer. Don't worry about us, even if we're delayed, why get worried when my karate niece is with me," Patting Sruthi, Padmakka said.
. Suma looked at her watch and  realized it would take at least an hour for Sanju to return home.

Suma poured a cup of coffee from the flask, Sipping the steaming hot coffee, Suma brought her mind deliberately back to the story of Padmakka……….
Suma could not help smiling at the thought of her indirect role in Hari's rather early marriage to Rama, the only daughter of an eminent lawyer Seshadri.Hari's pleas for finishing his MD and setting up a practice before settling, fell in deaf ears as his father, uncles and aunts wanted him to get married, lest he too might get entangled with some low caste girl like Suma. So, they searched vigorously for an Iyengar bride for Hari.
Matrimonial ads were regularly responded, in addition to putting up their own ads, astrological charts  and horoscopes were brought, Pundits were consulted, and they even made frequent trips to Tirupati, with the fervent prayer to Lord Srinivasa, for protecting Hari from witches like Suma.

Their Collective prayers were answered and   before even Hari could realize what had happened, he was engaged to Rama Devi.
Suma vividly remembered the engagement of Hari, which was followed by a grand feast for the relatives and  invited guests. Ram did not try to conceal his disappointment at his rather handsome nephew getting engaged to a thin, unhealthy- looking girl with a pale complexion, sticking out ears resembling the teapot handles. Ram could not help mentally comparing Suma with Rama.

Though dusky - complexioned, Suma with her luminous eyes, ever-smiling face and with that  bubbling, bustling personality was in striking contrast to the unsmiling face of Rama who looked very snobbish and spoilt child of very rich and affluent parents .
Though Padmakka was unhappy about the choice, her lone voice was as usual drowned by her tyrant husband's and orthodox  brothers,and other relatives.
'What's wrong with Rama? She is intelligent and  has a master's degree in Visual Communications, she's extremely rich and her father   would do anything to promote Hari's career. Rama's horoscope too is excellent. Thank your stars as   your hard work is bearing fruits nowinstead of grumbling like an illiterate," the bride- selection committee argued.

Suma, of course, was bitter about the double standards of Ram's people.
Ram's brother who labeled Suma as a 'flirt' as she had gone with Ram for a movie before marriage, had insisted on Hari taking Rama to Mahabalipuram on the second day of engagement. Similarly, the very relatives, who had gone on a pilgrimage to Thirupathy to stop Ram's wedding, had performed 'Srinivasa Kalyanam,'a sort of thanks-giving,' to the Lord of Thiruppathy tbe very next day of  Dr Hari's marriage.
During Padmakka's jinfrequent visits to Coimbatore, Suma had learnt that Rama could not tolerate her mother in law, in spite of Padmakka's best efforts to love her  and avoid unpleasantness to her son, the real reason for her very existence.  Padmakka stoically bore all the insults ancabuses hurled at her by her rich daughter in law, with the hope that time and motherhood would soon change Rama's behavior.
Raghavachari was practical ,knew exactly which side of the   bread to butter.   He got along remarkably well with Rama, who was instrumental in his son Hari's foreign degree, air-conditioned Nursing Home, posh car, palatial house and array of servants. Raghavachari often joined hands with Rama to find fault with his wife.
Hari initially resented his wife's arrogant, proud ways but after his return from London, slowly  and gradually, he too had settled down to her ways.

By the time Hari completed his fifth wedding Anniversary, he was    a changed man and
father of two children. He realized that he could still enjoy his life with his debonair personality backed by the very generous amount collected at the time of his marriage plus the frequent gifts of a rich and indulgent father in law. The generous gifts from father in law was another attraction to him.Naturally ,  he chose to ignore the 'bickering' at home, a very small price to pay for enjoying his life to the fullest extent.

While Raghavachari relaxed with his occasional gambling and boasting about his son's remarkable achievements at the young age, Hari enjoyed his life by partying and frequenting the various exclusive clubs with pretty partners.

Motherhood did not bring any change in Rama except making her obese, irritable and irrational. She was no fool to be ignorant of her husband's affairs and flings .But,she chose to ignore as she was only interested in acceptance in high society as a perfect couple ,flaunting their riches unabashedly

And Padmakka often served as her punching bag .while Rama enjoyed her position in publicity oriented social- service ,Ladies club activities card playing kitty- parties etc .
.Padmakka'slife revolved around Anand and Ami. Devoid of their parents' attention, the children too were very much attached to their 'Patti'.
Though Padmakka was, as usual, non-complaining, only once she remarked to Suma
"Suma, you know Rama does not call me Amma, As I've no daughters I always wanted my daughter in law Amma. When expressed this simple wish to her when she was just a bride ,she ignored my wish and laughed it off like a big joke!---------

Sipping the last bit of coffee, Suma sighed deeply. She deliberately brought her thoughts to the final show- down between Padmakka and her daughter-in law and  the subsequent, bold decision to stay with Ram's family, despite the protests all around. No doubt,  Padmakka, a frail old woman, showed her inner strength and moral courage by ignoring the ostracism of a conventional and  caste-conscious  community.Though old ,she realized if self respect is tbe price of social acceptance ,she would rather be rid off that acceptance. How bold and strong!!!...

Suma had clearly remembered, it was Tamil New Year and  Ram and  children were out to get sweets. Cursing Ram's persistent door bell, Suma hurriedly wrapped a towel around her wet hair after the head bath,  opened the door. But to her great shock, she saw Padmakka, a weeping wreck, clutching a small suitcase, standing there. One look at her, Suma guessed it all.

That was the first time Padmakka had come without advance information. Suma gently brought her in and  made her sit on the sofa. Even in that misery, Padmakka did not forget to rummage her hand bag to take out the chocolates she had brought for Sanju and Sruthi.
In a voice quivering with emotion, Padmakka said, 'Suma, I've come to stay with you for the rest of my life, which may not be many years, fortunately.  Please don't send me back to my worthless husband or son who had failed miserably to give me   the emotional security .I'm not financially dependent on them, my savings, though not much, is good enough for my simple lifestyle. I could've gone to Ravi, my other brother and Usha, which could've been acceptable to everyone.   But I feel more at home with you. You're a lovable girl, made my brother happy  have two wonderful kids, who, I love like Anand and Amy. I realize, though late in my life, the emptiness of a miserable, tradition- bound existence. You've proved that differences in caste, language or state means nothing when there's a perfect union of hearts. I want you to hear me out patiently and understand how I've come to this major decision in my life."
Tears rolling down her cheeks, Suma hugged the older woman and said, "Akka, you're most welcome, this is your house. I'm …. really … I'm'..... c
Choking with emotion, Suma continued, 'Akka, we're honored, you don't know what a priceless, God's gift you are to us, yes, you're filling the great void in our life. Our children would know now, for the first time, the affection and love of a grandmother, they never had"

Holding Padmakka close to her, Suma wiped her tears and  continued, "Now, listen Akka, I'll be all ears about everything happened in Coimbatore, on one condition, you have a cup of coffee, freshen up  and take rest till I rustle up a simple lunch for us. Ram and children too will be back then. After lunch, we both would listen to you leisurely; after all we'll have the whole lifetime to hear you out". Padmakka smiled and nodded.....
Later, slowly in between sobs, Padmakka narrated the story of her final showdown with Rama.What had actually triggered the 14 year old cold- war into a major war ,was a very trivial matter of Padmakka's distribution of a few imported dresses and slippers of her grandchildren to a nearby orphanage, in connection with her birthday.

Padmakka visited the orphanage on important days like birthdays, wedding anniversaries, death anniversaries ,religious functions, besides her regular fortnightly visits. She used to give the inmates whatever she could afford from her meager savings. This time on her birthday, which had gone as usual unnoticed in her house, she spent a couple of happy hours with the children, giving them a special lunch and distributing clothes…….

When Padmakka returned home, she saw an insanely furious Rama waiting outside the gate.  With her narrow eyes blazing, nostrils flaring up, she confronted the old woman.
"Where have you been? You've taken all the pretty, imported dresses kept in Anand's cupboard to distribute to your wretched orphan children, pearls to swine. I kept them all safe to organize a sale in the Ladies Club. Are you blind? Can't you see how pretty those dresses with a brand new look? What if Anand and Amy have outgrown them, I wanted to sell it and  get some money, that's what all the members of the club do." Clenching her teeth Rama continued, "You simply annoy me, you and your social service! How dare you touch the cupboard in my absence, it amounts to stealing, theft, you understand? Why don't you leave us alone? That would be a better social service".

Rama's torrent of abuses at the top of her voice brought a curious crowd in front of the palatial bungalow of Dr. Hari.

Looking at the onlookers, Rama muttered a curse and  stormed inside the house. ……
Padmakka felt dizzy, she staggered towards the living room where her husband and  beloved son were listening to the English news, unmindful of Rama's hurling abuses at her, that too in front of a crowd. The moment Raghavachari saw his wife entering the room with hesitant steps, he said impatiently, in louder than his usual voice, "Rama, ask Sankaran to warm up our lunch, already late; come on Hari, let's have our food"
After a pause, Raghavachari added with unconcealed contempt and sarcasm "Rama, Hari, ignore the old woman; she's out of her mind, social service, indeed social service, my foot!
Padmakka could hear Rama's loud laughter……….

Somehow Padmakka managed to reach her bed and  sank into it. While tears flowed incessantly, her mind, though numbed with extreme pain, could go through a pictorial tour of her life….her carefree childhood, adolescence, love, affection and admiration from everyone around, the most coveted proposal from one of the richest families, the spectacular marriage to Raghavachari  and  almost immediately after a fairytale marriage, her life turning into a living hell of physical and  emotional abuse etc. Though felt trapped in a love -less marriage, Padmakka, like generations of women before her, had learnt to suffer in silence and blame it all on their "fate'

Later, Hari's birth had given her life   a new meaning and  purpose. She lived for Hari, her   only hope, her emotional anchor, and reason to move on.

"Now, Hari has proved he is the chip off the old block, unmistakably he has inherited his Appa's philandering ways, his selfish, pleasure-loving nature. Today's incident is an eye-opener, now I realize   I don't belong to this house, to the man who has been torturing me for the past half a century and worthless son who lacked, leave alone love, even the human consideration to an old woman who, has become a punching bag for his wife's frustration; enough of this unpaid house-keeper's existence, even cook Sankaran's treated better than I in this house. I would miss Anand
Amrita but there're hundreds of Anands & Amritas out there, yearning for my love & attention"

The very next morning Padmakka was on her way to her brother  Ram's house.

'A shining example of an ordinary woman doing the extra- ordinary act of breaking the unwritten laws of a society, living a meaningful life, trying to wipe at least a few tears from  few eyes. She has shown immense courage to get out of a bad marriage for the sake of semblance of security and  more importantly the acceptance of the so-called society.  She's certainly a role model for all women whose lives are living  hells, sticking to the slot carved out for her, wife, mother and grandmother at any cost . She has certainly proved the truth in Hemingway's words, "World breaks everyone, and afterward , many are strong at the broken places"

The 'code' bell of Sanju, three long rings ,brought Suma back to the present Walking towards the door,  Suma could not help muttering 'Really an unsung heroine"

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