The Bird Cage

When I started working in Chennai, I rented a small flat in West Mambalam.  I didn’t have any roommates for a while, and Valliyamma, a retired sweeper (janitor) kept me company.  She used to work in the college where my mother was the Principal (Dean). I couldn’t afford to buy a TV for a month, since I had spent all my savings in paying an advance for the flat. Valliyamma used to regale me with stories in my spare-time.  This is one of her stories.

“A long time back, a young girl rent my heart and the wound hasn’t healed yet”, began Valliyamma. I settled myself as comfortably as possible in the sole plastic chair in the room to listen to her story.

Everyone in Tirupur knew the famous lawyer Ramani. Even little children knew his name, as he was one of the wealthiest men in town. Hailing from the orthodox Brahmin community, Ramani had worked his way up from hardscrabble beginnings.  His only daughter Hema was the apple of his eye.

I wouldn’t call Hema a great beauty. She was young, healthy and had a cheerful disposition that looking at life through rose-tinted glasses gives. She enrolled in the local university – where I worked – for a degree.

“What was her major?” I asked Valliyamma. “I’m semi-literate. What do I know about major and minor? Let me continue the story. I’m sure her subject has no bearing on what happened next”.

Ramani was very protective about his daughter. Make that over-protective. She was seldom permitted to travel alone – someone always chaperoned her. She couldn’t visit a friend on her own – her mother or her widowed aunt accompanied her. If she wanted to pray in the temple, a retinue followed her. Even attending the college – but the problem started there, I’ll come to that later.

Ramani enforced a strict dress code – she had to wear a half sari. Always. Her conservative father frowned upon new fangled costumes such as Jeans and Salwar Kameez. And My God, the skirts she wore! Made of silk and embroidered in silver or gold thread, every single one of them. She always looked like a Million Dollars. And the jewelry she had on – the stones always matched the color of the skirt.

And the opposite sex – Hema was prevented from mingling with them. “All this mixing between the sexes – its just makes women perverted” Ramani proclaimed belligerently. Once a young man asked Hema the time of the day. She made the mistake of replying “8:30 AM”. She was grounded for a whole day for talking to strange men.

“Traveling by buses breeds immorality in young girls”, Ramani used to say. So, Hema was ferried on an Auto Rickshaw to college and back – Lest she succumb to the temptations of rakish young men.

But the generally cautious Ramani slipped one day. And on that day, Hema went missing.

“What?? Missing?!” I asked, amidst quickening interest.

You should have seen Ramani then – he was desolated with grief. For a whole month, he and his wife scoured the earth for Hema. The whole town was agog with rumors that Hema had been kidnapped for a ransom.

Initially, Ramani didn’t lodge a complaint with the police, for fear of tarnishing his girl’s name. In the end, he bit the bullet and ushered in the police. It was the cops that found her, ultimately.

One not so fine day, Ramani and his wife made the fateful journey that took them to Hema. The minute he saw his daughter, Ramani suffered a massive stroke. He fell in a heap at his wife’s feet, like a felled tree. He remained bed-ridden for the rest of his life.

Ramani paid dearly for his carelessness, that’s all I can say.

“Carelessness? If his daughter got kidnapped, how is he responsible?”  I asked testily.

Ramani should have paid attention to the auto driver. He was young, but decidedly not handsome, not even in a cheap and flashy sort of way. His face was filled with pockmarks. Perhaps that’s why Ramani never took him seriously – as a threat.

It took 30 minutes to travel to and from the college. People who are cooped up together in a small space – such as an auto – start talking. Talking leads to familiarity – and sometimes, much more than that.

“You mean…”

That Hema eloped with the auto driver, of course.

“How did Ramani meet his fate?”  I asked. “I’m coming to that part now” said Valliyamma irritably.

When the police found Hema’s whereabouts, they took Ramani and his wife with them. Their car couldn’t enter the narrow street in that shanty town full of huts, so they had to walk. And then suddenly, their daughter emerged from a hovel, wearing a tattered sari, bereft of any jewelry. She looked emaciated, as if she had not eaten for 3 days. There was a bruise on her lip and dark circles under her eyes, as though sleep eluded her.

The plight of his daughter shocked Ramani so much that a major blood vessel in his brain burst.

“What about Hema?”

As for Hema – I wish I could stop the story here, but the truth must be told. She found a lowly job in a Cinema Theater – enough to keep her fed and clothed. She didn’t complete her degree, so good jobs were out of her reach.

I sometimes see her there and lend her a few rupees, knowing fully well she can’t return it. Some of my friends buy her a meal or get her the necessities that she can’t afford.

“What happened to her husband, the auto driver?”

Oh, Marimuthu. He turned out to be a drunkard. He sold Hema’s jewelry within the 1st week, under the pretext of buying an auto. He became progressively drunk and disorderly and started abusing her.

Hema soon found out that she had little in common with the semi-educated man from the slums. What can one say? Disillusionment is more heart-breaking than abuse.

I wish her problems had ended there. Under enormous pressure from his parents, Marimuthu soon tied the knot with another girl – an uneducated girl from his caste. Hema was left all alone in the world. She had burnt all her bridges.

Valliyamma wiped her eyes. “Aghast at what she had done to her father, Hema steadfastly refused to take any help from her parents”. I was looking at her intently.

“I’m a simple woman”, she said. “I haven’t read big books. But it seems to me that the biggest gift parents can give their children – is trusting them. For trust roots children, while giving them wings to soar”.


  1. Quote

    Another superb heartbreaker story Priya. I’ll write later another comment on a pattern I have observed which I call “First Male Syndrome”.

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    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Await your comment on the “First Male Syndrome”.

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    I suspect Valliyamma is Hema.
    Again, u’ve just said enuf to tickle the brains of the reader.
    Brilliant again!

  4. Quote

    Siddarth – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Interesting guess. But – No, I never met Hema (that’s not her real name). I would have asked her a question or 2, had I met her.

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    // the biggest gift parents can give their children – is trusting them.//
    I appreciate these lines, but the trust factor applies to children also.
    ‘the biggest gift children can give their parents – is trusting them’

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    Selva – Thanks for your comment.

    I agree with you, but kids are immature. When they’re dying to assert themselves, if their parents impose restrictions upon restrictions on them, their 1st instinct will be to rebel.

  7. Quote

    Good one.. i have a similar story, but this time for a parent who trusted her daughter giving everything she asked for.. its a real story that happened very recently.. i will key down this story later..

  8. Quote

    Senthil – Thanks for your comment.

    As Selva says, the problem is not just with the parents. Its often very difficult to make children understand why something’s done. All the more reason for parents to communicate effectively with their children.

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    A very touching story. I wasn’t really expecting such an end to it, which makes it more interesting, if it were just a story. Your title “The Bird Cage” opens up the discussion even further. A person should be allowed to have freedom, but just how much is too much? The portion where Hema refuses help from her parents gives some hope that she now learns to stay on her foot. Even if it isn’t a well disposed life her father dreamt for her, I hope she finds happiness in what she makes of herself, on her own.

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    Sudhamshu – Thanks for your comment.

    Though this is a story, it is – for the most part – based on real life events. And reality is often more striking than imagination.

    How much freedom is too much? Interesting question. I honestly don’t know the answer, but let me take a shot. Freedom takes getting used to – for with freedom comes responsibility. Someone with a high degree of responsibility can handle a high degree of freedom.

    I wonder if Hema (her real name is different) will ever be happy. Guilt and regret must be gnawing her innards. But you’re right – I’m glad she has the will-power to support herself.

  11. Quote

    //but kids are immature. When they’re dying to assert themselves, if their parents impose restrictions upon restrictions on them, their 1st instinct will be to rebel.//

    I too agree with you. Infact I myself have come across with a similar state of mind. In this story, I guess there is something, which relates to your own feel of yesteryears.

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    Selva – Yes, a real-life incident trigged this story. The incident happened 15-20 years back.

  13. Quote
    ila vilvendhan said March 31, 2011, 8:42 pm:

    Ah! touching story priya! ennamaa ezhuthi irukinga !!!

  14. Quote

    Ila – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

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    There are many such incidents happening in educated communities.. Recently the only girl of a crorepathi ran off with a guy from a different poor community.. they married against their parent’s wishes with help of police.. within three months, the girl returned unable to live in the guy’s house located in a colony..

    I dont know how many of you would be aware of.. but politically, the tirumavalavan group have been openly encouraging their guys to seduce prominent caste girls, by any means.. It was done few decades back by Periyarist anti-brahmin gang.. It happened to one of friend’s sister who was just 17 years old.. she was systematically eloped by that guy, and we were able to trace & recover her the next day.. when she narrated the entire incident, the entire plot came to be known..

    The problem here is the narrow mindedness of the educated.. Jaathi still plays major role in society, and the continuous hostility towards it, by government, media, and the urbanites are creating chaos in family and the society.. how many will agree this?

  16. Quote

    Great story Priya

    I am not sure if it is trust alone. IMHO, Kids should be taught to be independent. The more protected they are, the more dependent they will become.

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    Rajagopal Sukumar said March 31, 2011, 9:22 pm:

    The first male syndrome – when I was a teenager growing up in mylapore, a neighbor’s daughter eloped with a cyclerickshawwalla. That guy was always camped in front of that girl’s house. When overprotective fathers (typically fathers) prevent even the normal contact with the opposite sex girls don’t learn how to handle attention from the opposite sex. In this scenario the first guy that showers attention on the girl wins her. The status of the guy, his money, his looks nothing matters. This pattern has been observed by me so many times that I call this – first male syndrome. I guess Hema is yet another example of this pattern.

    Interestingly, equally sadly, in the lower strata of the society, a similar phenomenon occurs. When a girl attains puberty she is forced to drop out of school so that any “unwanted” attention from boys is prevented. Typically, They also go to the next step of getting the girl married off, many a time, inflating the age to 18 to escape any problems with the laws.

    Speaking to my aunts I also know the Brahmin community was also doing the same thing – most of my aunts didn’t study past 8th grade and were married off when they were teenagers or around the age 20.

    I guess Brahmins have progressed significantly to allow their daughters to goto college and maybe even to a job.

    Overall, I think indian parents haven’t figured out how to handle their daughters’ sexuality. Instead of educating the daughters about sexuality, they seem to believe in getting their daughters married off as early as possible.

    I speak about daughters only because sexuality has a bigger impact on daughters due to the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. When it comes to boys the same problems with respect to sexuality exists but because they don’t get pregnant parents are able to be laissez faire.

    Hope that helps?

  18. Quote

    First Male Syndrome is a good observation. It sounds plausible. I wonder if any research is done in this direction. I think we have unhealthy influence even from popular media and movies where violence and so called teenage love stories are over-exaggeratedly shown to be positive and good.

  19. Quote

    Vamsi – thanks for your comment.

    Yes, children shouldn’t be protected too much, they’ll resent that. Ramani’s brand of protection partly stemmed from not trusting Hema to fend for herself. Had he given her more freedom, she might have made better choices.

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    Senthil – I think movies are also responsible for this madness: a lovely rich girl will fall in love with a loafer & love finally conquers everything. Mostly bullshit.

    I didn’t know Thiruma’s group did this, but I’m not surprised. Politicians are mostly pond scum.

  21. Quote

    Sukumar – the “first male syndrome” is very interesting. I’ve seen it in play in my own family.

    Regarding the lower strata of the society – there’s a general perception that girls are burdens which must be gotten rid off as early as possible.

    Sex is still a taboo word in our culture. Whenever a school tries to incorporate sex education, there’s so much resistance from parents. Why go that far – parents squirm when there’s an advt for a sanitary towel when their kids are watching TV!

  22. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 31, 2011, 10:36 pm:

    Thanks Vamsi. I don’t know if any research has been done either. It is my hobby to study human behavior and this is a pattern I’ve observed so many times that if someone does serious research s/he would most likely agree.

    Yes the Indian cinema’s obsession with “love” also is a major factor, no doubt.

    Unfortunately, those don’t explain why parents will resist educating their children about sexuality. It is not that complicated to explain to one’s own child some basic things like that, when one is ready to spend inordinate time on teaching other mundane things.

  23. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 31, 2011, 10:38 pm:

    Thanks Priya. Even in Brahmin families this stmt “ava adutha vettuku pogiravathaane” (she is anyway going to goto someone else’s house as a bride) aka “burden” used to dominate the conversation not too long ago.

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    Very nice story Priya. In a weird way I appreciated the fact that Hema did not go back to her parents – call it guilt or anger at her parents for being over protective and not trusting her.

    And Sukumar’s “first male syndrome” is interesting. I wonder if it applies to men as well .. I mean “first female syndrome”?? On that topic, I think that every school must be co-ed. We are social beings after all. The artificial separation that starts at school could lead to behavioral issues, even though they could be minor. Case in point is myself – I always found it (and still do) find it difficult to start a conversation with a lady. Call it shyness, lack of confidence .. whatever, I blame it all on the fact that my school stopped being co-ed after 6th standard :).

    I liked some of the comments as well and being a parent to a daughter, the comments gave me a lot to think about. My 9 year old daughter already thinks I am “conservative” and she attributes that to my “Indian” culture. But the surprising thing is that she has recognized it and is trying to understand the boundaries.

  25. Quote
    Manikanda said April 1, 2011, 12:24 am:

    Very touching story and comments on the trust aspect as well..

    More often than not, Trust has to be the first deposit u make into any relationship, including professional ones.

    Putting that more often than not, just showing that faith influences directions and long-term results far more positively than anything else.

    have strongly noticed that in all my past experiences, with my teams..Just having faith in your team, and they truly beleiving that u have faith in them does absolute wonders to their confidence and their outputs..

    and it might sound Funny, but i seem to find it working even when doing difficult negotiations with my 2 yr kid 🙂 🙂 Managing to post this, now that he has gone to sleep, after his dose of nursery rhymes on youtube 🙂 🙂

  26. Quote

    Ganesh – Thanks for your comment.

    >>Anger at her parents for over-protecting her
    Insightful – I hadn’t thought about it that way, but now that you mention it – Interesting take.

    I agree with you – Co-Eds are healthier. It gives borls & boys an opportunity to get used to the opposite sex.

    I’m glad your daughter understands the boundaries. Please tell her India isn’t conservative anymore 🙂 Particularly in the big cities.

  27. Quote

    Manikanda – Thanks for your comment.

    >> Trust has to be the first deposit u make into any relationship

    What a wonderful point you make.

    And you’re right. If you place faith in someone, they’ll exceed your expectations, more often than not. Too bad Mr Ramani (not his real name) didn’t understand that.

  28. Quote


    The ‘ First Male Syndrome ‘ explained was excellent.. but i think… The First Male Syndrome affects all girls , even those without overly protective parents.. Only difference is that the parents who provide independence, also make thier children think for themselves and somehow a major incident is prevented…

    @ Ganesh,

    I dont think ‘First Female Syndrome’ is as concentrated… May be because the way we a male is brought up – allows him a lof of other distractions as well…

    If at all there is a ‘First Female Syndrome’ , it is triggered by ‘First Male Syndrome’ 🙂

  29. Quote

    One of the best lessons about parenting is one I got from the moving documentary “The March of the Penguins”. The parent penguins take all efforts to protect and feed the newly born penguins. Once the young ones can walk, the parents leave never to see them again. The parents leave even before the young ones have set foot in water!!!

    I am not even remotely suggesting that parents should abandon their children. But they should be close enough to give just enough protection and far enough to allow them to learn things on their own.

  30. Quote

    Arun – Thanks for your comment.

    Its indeed very interesting, what you say about penguins. I agree with you, parents should know how to give their children space. Once the kids are old enough, parents should let them experiment – instead of smothering them by being over-protective.

  31. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 2, 2011, 4:35 pm:

    Thanks Kalyan. IMHO, “First Male Syndrome” is named so only for girls who fall for the first male they come across. Many girls don’t and if you observe why its usually because they have had extensive experience interacting with the opposite sex. It is this lack of experience that is the reason for over-protected girls falling for the “first male”. Hope that helps?

    @ganesh, I agree with Kalyan that “first female syndrome” even if it exists must be very very rare for it become an observable pattern. I’m sure it happens to some boys who have no experience. I recall the story of Rishyasringa from mythology 🙂

  32. Quote


    The term First Male Syndrome itself gives a negative connotation.. what is normal & natural attraction is seen as something negative..

    Its not that girls fall in love on first interaction.. rather, it happens with the male with whom they get personally close for the first time..

    The problem here is NOT with the girl or the parents.. but with the government which had enslaved the society breaking it up.. and also educated (& mostly) urban people (including academicians, intellectuals, journalists, and also many professionals who for want of recognition fall in line with the former)..

    In short, every one in this sastwingees community is also equally responsible for this problem..

  33. Quote


    /** Sex is still a taboo word in our culture. Whenever a school tries to incorporate sex education, there’s so much resistance from parents

    when the girl and boy is married off after attaining maturity (say, for eg, 16 yrs or 18 yrs), they will learn everything by themselves 🙂 .. what we are doing is that we forcefully keep themselves single and isolated and then theoritically teach them at schools at a heavy cost (separate teachers who should be paid, separate class room etc)..

    Next, what do we expect them to do after imparting this sex education? To suppress their natural feelings for another 5 or ten years.. Its NOT sex education, but sex oppression 🙂

  34. Quote

    Senthil – Oppression? You don’t think “Sex Education” involves teaching people how to have sex, do you? 🙂

    The trouble is, sexuality buds around 12 – 13. They need to some guidance on how to handle that – either from the parents or from the school or both.

    The marriage age is something people should decide on their own – as long as its above 17-18. Some may want to marry early, some later.

  35. Quote
    Sreedhar NK said April 3, 2011, 7:57 pm:


    Welcome to the world where knowledge can be oppressive, rationale is a mouthwash that you can’t ingest, and putting your head in the sand or in a body part is the best way to handle issues.

    You have the right to disagree with this approach, but, you will be called a traitor and other names. If you are up for it, be our guest.

  36. Quote

    NK – Thanks for your comment.

    One would think freedom, educating oneself & the ability to think things through would be good. But enough of that. I’m already called an “intellectual” {intellectual = disgusting cockroach from “Western” toilets}.

  37. Quote

    /** Senthil – Oppression? You don’t think “Sex Education” involves teaching people how to have sex, do you? **/

    Naturally important part of sex education (if we go by its literal meaning) should be how to have sex.. but today they teach everything except this 🙂 🙂

    Much of what is taught are reproductive anatomy and various means of hacking sexuality..

    Sex Education to unmarried young students is like teaching Java/J2EE to those who havent seen computers, and then asking them to architect a software.. 🙂

    /** The trouble is, sexuality buds around 12 – 13. They need to some guidance on how to handle that – either from the parents or from the school or both.

    yes.. by the age 13-14, the boys and girls get awareness about their gender and start maintaining a distance.. the awareness about marriage and other aspects start to evolve by 15-16..

    So our society was in one way right in deciding marriage age as 16-18 … today 18-20 is seen as optimal.. this is the age when one’s psychology (taste, attitude, world perspective, likes & dislikes) starts to gets shape and for the young married couples they explore world collectively, and develop a JOINT INTELLECT.. and couples who are married at this age, are more stable, closer, understanding than those who marry at later age (eg: 25-30).. I have seen this in my relative’s circle as a case study..

    (What to do.. no one told me about these things in my 20s 🙂 LOL )

  38. Quote


    /** Welcome to the world where knowledge can be oppressive, rationale is a mouthwash that you can’t ingest, and putting your head in the sand or in a body part is the best way to handle issues

    if we evaluate all these parameters (knowledge, rationale etc) for the sastwingees community, it would show a very different result that you would like to think.. just like how scientific temper had been mere sloganeering here (as i have pointed out earlier) , the rationality will also be a hollow claim..

    I love to expose these hollowness in future too.. 🙂

  39. Quote

    As an individual you have right to disagree with anything in civil way. I think you said enough and edging on crossing the line. You may want to retire now on this.

  40. Quote

    A poignent story, Priya. It resonated with me because I have a son who is on the verge of becoming a teenager and I am totally at a loss.
    I just can’t apply the rules that my partents bought me up with. I am clueless and lost. I am finding this the hardest phase of parenting.

  41. Quote

    Archana – Thanks for your comment.

    I understand – it must be very difficult to raise a teenager in this day & age. Its a new & more dangerous world – and ensuring that our children continue to communicate with us is hard. It will be even harder for me, 10 years down the line with Sana.

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    /** It resonated with me because I have a son who is on the verge of becoming a teenager and I am totally at a loss.

    Archana.. will it be possible for you to provide more details on, what are the insecurities, a mother would be facing with a teenager son?

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