The Age of Innocence

In the Summer of 1985, Class X of “Sacred Heart Girls Convent” suffered an electric jolt. To be precise, there were 65 of us in the class (Hey – India is a densely populated country) & 64 of us were shocked out of our wits. As for the 65th scholar – Well, this post is about her.

We had finished our board exams & a few days later, we were all luxuriating in the shade of the many trees that dotted our campus. The weather wasn’t too bad for April, we were all in our “color” dresses (instead of the nerdy Maroon & Cream horror euphemistically called “Uniform Dress Code”) & many of us had iced lollies in our hands. Life was perfect, as life tends to get after grueling exams.

We spotted Innasi striding purposefully towards us. None of us knew what Innasi’s job title was – You could best describe her as an “odd-jobs woman”. She rung the school bell, swept the corridor, pruned the roses, fawned around the Head-Mistress & lorded over the pre-teens. She was a “personage” nevertheless & knew stuff that nobody else did. On the rare occasions that she led the school prayer (people, people – we are talking about a Catholic school), she sang in a mellifluous voice that startled & mesmerized in equal measure. Innasi always walked purposefully – strode, to be precise. Perhaps Alexander walked like that after defeating Darius in battle.

“Do you know why there’s a crowd before Sister Pauline’s office?” she asked smugly. “No, Innasi. Though we have a hunch that you’re dying to tell us – So, why don’t you get it over with?” – said Anita. The rest of us sniggered. Insolence is the right of the young. Innasi scowled & said – “Well, smart-asses! Malini is getting married”. Enola Gay couldn’t have left such a silence in its wake.

Malini, our classmate was getting married. Damn, we were 15 years old. Most of us were not averse to Holy Matrimony, but it loomed hazily in the future, somewhere after college graduation. All of us were looking forward to “Secondary School” & “Sweet 16” parties. Sister Pauline (our Head-Mistress) frowned upon anyone wearing make-up at school – and in sheer defiance, some rebels had secretly planned on painting themselves like trollops that very day & hitting a cool hang-out after that. Geeks like me were doing some “light” reading on “Nuclear Physics” to prepare – for Armageddon, perhaps? But now, all was forgotten. We were too stunned to speak.

Innasi was pleased as punch at our shock, so she readily answered our questions. Malini was marrying her uncle – Mother’s brother. The “groom” was 32 years old. The wedding will take place in May 1985. Sister Pauline had thrown a hissy fit, since she had strong feelings about minors getting married. But Malini’s parents were adamant & had terminated her education. If she was lucky, her husband-to-be might permit her to complete her Secondary School. “Oh, but Sister Pauline will not have her back!” – Innasi said ominously.

“What you mean, you old coot, is you’d rather derive perverse pleasure in Malini being a school drop-out!” – this was Beulah & her voice shook. She was almost in tears. “Do you brush your teeth with gun-powder, Beulah – because you are shooting your mouth off!” – Innasi walked off in a huff. In some communities, people marry their cousins – but, I have to confess that marrying an uncle freaks me out totally. I mean, your grandma becomes your mother-in-law! Somehow that doesn’t sound right to me.

A few months back, our Math teacher Ms Stella blurted out – “Isn’t Malini pretty?”. Ms Stella was like that – she never mastered the art of decorum. We loved her for that – she was rather refreshing. I gave Malini the once-over – Really, I can disconcert people with my critical eye. We were all gauche and either skinny or rotund with baby fat. We were as awkward as colts. Malini was already semi-Rubenesque, had long silky hair & a smooth skin. Why be unkind enough to dissect someone’s appearance beyond this? She was definitely pretty. Perhaps the problem started there.

Most of us took a bus or rode a bicycle to school. But, Malini was chaperoned to school. Her bosom friend, Shanthi, had obscenely rich parents & commandeered her own car. But, her driver dropped her off – she wasn’t chaperoned by a mother, clucking like an over-protective hen. Poor Malini. Apparently her looks had attracted the unwelcome attention of “loafers” – read boys in our age group. Some besotted boy tried to – GASP! – talk to her. Another rapscallion tried to woo her with roses. Her parents, obviously horrified with the attention their 15 year old daughter was getting, miffed her “suitors” by chaperoning her. Perhaps some moron serenaded her now, who knows? So, her devoted parents had arranged her marriage, thereby squelching her life.

“So, Malini will become what, sort of like a mother?” moaned Fatima. This was a depressing thought. Mothers carry large, ugly hand-bags the size of a circus tent. In it, they had bank statements, electricity bills, grocery lists, “to do” lists, spare diapers, an amazing assortment of keys that open no known doors in the universe & wads of tissues. They had “responsibilities” like paying the bills, buying provisions, making dinner, entertaining guests & overseeing the maid. Most of us were militantly irresponsible. A simple “Clean your room!” from our parents elicited nasty looks & much ominous mutterings akin to thunder from us. Malini probably would start investing wisely in shares, we thought gloomily. She’ll be buying a nice “starter home” when Shanthi – whom we knew was destined to be a doctor – was dissecting her first cadaver in Med school.

What did Malini think about this? – We wondered. She never struck me as a push-over. She was articulate, reserved but friendly. Why on Jan 85, when I was shopping for clothes with my mother, I bumped into Malini. Mum wanted me to get an ultra-traditional long skirt that looked totally dorky – and I mulishly chose a pair of jeans. And glared back at mum, willing her to order me around. Malini smiled at me sweetly & said – “Why don’t you buy a traditional long skirt? Isn’t that our culture?”. Mum looked ecstatic & beamed, while I gaped at Malini, horrified. “In any case, we have to listen to our elders in the long run!” she said, looking gentle like a Simmentaler cow.

That incident must have given me a clue. “Accede, don’t defy” must have been Malini’s Mantra in life. We saw a red-faced Sister Pauline getting out of her office. She had begged, harangued & threatened Malini’s parents on her behalf. But to no avail. We made a beeline for the Head-Mistress’s office. Malini was standing there alone, with her trade-mark gentle expression. We felt miserable. Many of us were tongue-tied for the 1st time in our lives. “So” said Shree brightly – “Joining us for a game of Volleyball?”. Anita kicked Shree’s legs violently. Maybe Malini was forbidden from playing games – brides-to-be have to behave in a dignified manner. “Hey, what do you all want to be, when you grow up?” – This was Lakshmi. We all groaned inwardly. She had no tact whatsoever – “I’m gonna be a Police Officer!!” – she bellowed. Poor Malini. Would she have the option of working?

“Well, Uh, Congratulations, Malini” we said uncertainly. “Thank You” she said. Her expression was inscrutable. “And wow, huh. Great news” – Each of us shook her hand. Shanthi hugged her & wouldn’t let go off her for 5 minutes. It was a sad scene, almost funereal, reminiscent of “Ode to the Nightingale” by Keats. Ms Stella & a few of us took Shanthi aside for a cup of tea. Shanthi looked very pale & her hands shook when she took the proffered cup. “Tell me something” she said. “How does she feel about, you know, having sex with this guy?”. I shuddered & tried not to think about Malini’s nuptials. She was 15 years old. He was 32. She was still a kid. And he was a full-blooded man. Life sometimes sucks. Shanthi sniffled once – just once. It was a heart-breaking sound.

Malini’s younger sister came gliding towards us, with the grace of an eel. 13 years old, she already had the allure of a wood nymph. Innasi told us darkly – “You know, Malini has a 28 year old uncle. They plan to marry him off to this kid”. For once, Innasi looked tormented, not ghoulish. And I nearly liked her at that minute.

Only Shanthi attended the wedding. The rest of us excused ourselves. You could say we didn’t have strong enough stomachs for that.


Comments

  1. Quote
    Meenaks said March 12, 2008, 5:43 am:

    //All it takes is 1 AmV for us to long for comments from Senthil & Venkat //

    🙂 How true!!

  2. Quote

    Meenaks – Thanks. I think AmV is from a generation where younger people & women were treated as delinquents! And they were expected to shut up when their “superiors” found them annoying 🙂

    Better for us to have a conversation with people who attack our opinion – than to talk to someone that attacks us.

  3. Quote

    Balaji – Thanks for your kind words.

    Many people find it difficult to fight for their cause, since they have a distaste for confrontations. Its better then for people to do something positive – then, they are working for their cause, not fighting against an evil.

  4. Quote
    VettiSinthanai (subscribed) said April 15, 2008, 1:56 pm:

    Priya…

    It is a wide spread practice in most familes in the old days.
    But I feel ashamed of myself for letting that happen in the recent past. How would you think you will react if the family decides on this kind of situation that a 29 yr old marrying a 16 yr old is perfect . If you are the only person who speaks against that , ultimately ending with a stamp that this person “broke the family”….
    Is it the person marrying ( man) should have the social responsibility to say NO?? Why are the girls always thought of as the “bad guy” here.
    I really want to prevent this from happenning…

  5. Quote

    Vetti Sinthanai – Thanks for your comment.

    The sad part in Malini’s story is, nobody said “no”. Not Malini, not the guy that married her, not her parents – nobody. I don’t think girls are projected as being bad: After all, Malini was a minor & the 29 year old man could have put his foot down.

    But out of it all, this is what I think. We should all take responsibility for our lives. There’s a lot to be said about being assertive & taking control of our own lives. What’s the use of blaming society in a diffuse manner for such ills?

  6. Quote
    senthil (subscribed) said April 17, 2008, 2:14 pm:

    An interesting news.. Russian president putins (54) marriage with a 24 year girl..
    http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/ndtv/story.aspx?id=NEWEN20080047169

    /** Ignorant part of the comment by Senthil – where he doesn’t know the difference between minors & consenting adults – removed by Author. **/

  7. Quote
    senthil (subscribed) said April 17, 2008, 2:17 pm:

    /**Ignorant, Belligerent comment & hate messages from Senthil removed, to enhance reading pleasure for all. Correcting him & pointing out the difference between truth & lies to him is futile. – Author.**/

  8. Quote
    VettiSinthanai (subscribed) said April 21, 2008, 1:59 pm:

    Thanks Priya for your comments.

    Again.. the continuation of the story is I encouraged one such girl to go to college. She was very good in math and science. much better than i can expect from a municipal school.
    She passed 10th Standard after 3 yrs of break .. I pushed her for that . She was not accepted in most schools due to the age restriction. I had to use all the muscle to get her into this new school.
    The girl’s dad took money for the entire 11th and 12th standard from me. The girl went back to school and the dad practically made this 16yr old girl my sole responsibility. I dont shun responsibility.. atleast not in these kind of cases. I can make one step at a time. I am hoping this other girl lives up to my expectation . I am hoping to send her to nursing school if she can score good marks.

    I am sure this girl is facing lot of problems in school while her same aged girls are already mothers and wives. Who can help this person. I can do it money wise. on a day to day basis this girl faces more challenges than the one that just married and lives the life she knows of . How can I protect from the verbal abuse and the social bashing on her . When all I wanted her to have a decent life for her.

    The one who married this 29 yr old becomes a respectable wife while the one who wanted to be something faces myriad of challenges.

    My point is it is easy to make them go to school , they need more of a social acceptance and get emotional support.

    But I think that it must be the parents responsibility to look after the good of the children. If they cant make the better decision for the kids then came the govt telling them not to get the girls married at 16 or 17.

    It is not the age where kids/ young adults can make a life changing decisions. Is this the popular belief that the “girls are a burdensome” that is leading these girls in to this direction.

    Also the media to blame. How many hit movies show that it is okay to be in love ( i dont know what to call) with older person.
    These are the movies that will run in the B /C centers for 100 days.

    Why ….. because people accepted this. Rarely we appreciate the children in our lives. I feel sad for those who go through either direction as in my story .

    When children are treated as children , we bring the best in them.

    PS: the married one in my earlier post , I am asking her to go to college , I am hoping she will after the baby is 6 months old.

  9. Quote

    Vetti Sinthanai – Hats off to you. It seems to me that your Sinthanai is not Vetti at all.

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