He sat on the recliner and looked at the beautiful young faces in front of him.Their faces showed excitement laced with a tinge of doubt.
‘Will he really tell it out today?’ ,most of them wondered.
He had already made up his mind to tell them and that’s why they had assembled in front of him.He,Bapuji,as they called him fondly,was not their father and nor was he related to them .Yet he was their Bapuji.Everyone ,right from the five year old Mina to the fifty-something Leela,called him Bapuji.
‘So you are eager to hear it ,right?’,he asked the small crowd in front of him.
‘Yes Bapuji’, they chorused.
‘Ok let me start with the story then…..’.He thus began….
Many years ago when we were still under the British rule,there lived a family in a small village.They, just like their neighbors, never knew or bothered what was happening to the country for they were safe in their little village.This family had a stern and elderly grandmother living with her sons and daughter-in-laws and a horde of tiny tots.Our heroine,let me call her Savithri,was around 8 years old when an incident changed her life.
She was playing with her little brothers and sisters and a whole gang of cousins in their backyard.She was so happy and thrilled to see all her relatives.Savithri didn’t know what was going on but was old enough to understand that there was an air of festivity in the house.Lots of good food,sweets being served at every meal,everyone was being extra kind and affectionate towards her and even her grandmother who used to find fault in everything anyone does smiled at her.All this indicated that something good was about to take place.Maybe a function or festival she said to herself.
Early one morning,Savitri was woken up earlier than usual and her mom bathed and dressed her like a princess and told her to sit quietly till she was called.She was desperate to join her siblings in their game but her grandmother’s stern glance told her to sit still.
She was called and her mom and aunt walked her to a dais decorated with flowers and was made to sit beside a boy who was a couple of years elder to her.She smiled and he smiled back.’A new friend’ was all that she could think.A couple of ceremonies later,lunch was served and Savitri and her ‘new friend’ enjoyed a scrumptious lunch together.
Then after a week the house was as quiet as it was a month ago.Savitri never knew what took place that day except that she saw a new ‘friend’ who disappeared with the others.
A few months passed without any events when one day her father looked very unhappy and her mom cried inconsolably.Her grandmother took her aside and removed the the new chain that her ‘friend ‘ her ‘given’ her and made her wear a sarie just like grandma wore.Life changed drastically for the 8 year old ‘widow’.
Savitri was not allowed to play with her siblings and had to remain indoors.No visits were entertained and she had to eat with her grandma after everyone else finished their meal.Life had turned upside down and Savitri didn’t understand anything that was going around her.
One day someone came to visit them and specifically asked to see Savitri.A shy and confused Saviri came from her solitude to meet the stranger and recognised him to be one from the crowd that was here a few months back.
He hugged Savitra and cried.
‘Men don’t cry’,thought Savithri,’but why is he crying on me’?
Finally he spoke…’I am taking Savitri with me’.His voice was so authoritative that even her stern Grandmother didn’t voice her displeasure.’She will be my daughter from now on.I lost my wife in childbirth and now my son has followed her . I have no one.She shall be with me and I will care for her like my daughter.Go dear girl,ask your mother to pack your bag for we are leaving in a few minutes.’
Savitri was so happy that she hugged the man and kissed him.’Freedom at last’, thought the little girl.Her mother had already packed her cloths in a neat bundle and with it was her favorite stuffed doll.She kissed her mom goodbye and walked happily with the man whom she would start calling ‘Appa‘[Father].Neighbors were shell shocked and voiced their disapproval loudly.But nothing seemed to deter the stride of Appa.Walking -stick in one hand and Savitri’s little hand in the other,he walked with great confidence and determination and climbed into the horse drawn cart that stood at the end of the street.
Savitri’s mother wiped her eyes and smiled.Her plan had worked.She had sought her brothers help behind her husbands back which was considered unethical in those days.She couldn’t bear to see her little one clad in widows cloths and being traumatised.She sent word through her brother to her in-laws begging him to free the child of these meaningless rituals.
Savitri became the darling of the new household.Appa’s sister whom she started calling ‘ Seetha Athai’ was her favorite.Seetha though dressed like her grandma was quite different from anyone she has seen.She was more like a mother to her.Seetha dressed her up like old days and soon she was playing with other children in the courtyard.A tutor was employed and she began schooling at home.She had always wondered why she had never been sent to school like her brothers but never knew the answer.Her grandmother believed that schooling was for boys and not for the girls who would be spening the rest of their lives serving their husband and children.She studied with great enthusiasm much to the delight of Appa.
She got the news from her home front through her uncle and days just flew by.The little Savitri blossomed into a beautiful lady.At the age of 18 she was married off to Seetha Athai’s son and soon the two started a happy life together.She helped run their family business,a rare feat for women in those days.Everyone spoke high of her beauty and her brains.After Appa’s death she ran the household with equal vigor.Days turned into weeks and months and years and their happiness was marred by the only fact that they could not beget children.But Savitri was not disheartened.The duo started a home for destitute women and children and lived up to a ripe old age……
‘But Bapuji,you promised to tell us about your childhood’,said a little one from the group.
Bapuji smiled and closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
‘Come children,let’s go and have some kheer-coconut kheer,amma’s[Mother] favorite’.All those gathered hurried to the dining room to savor amma‘s favorite kheer that Leela aunty had prepared.
Bapuji went to his room and closed the door.He wiped a tear and looked at his wife.She smiled at him.
‘Are you wondering why I didn’t tell them the whole truth?Well,Amma changed your name from Savitri to Saraswathi as if to drive away your misfortunes with a new name.I couldn’t tell them it was you dear.The children will be saddened to know it.’
She smiled again.
‘You are the bravest and strongest girl I have ever seen.Taking lead from Appa you broke so many social taboos without worrying about what people spoke about you.You studied,helped appa run his business,accepted my proposal to marry you,started this home for children…….’.He choked with emotion….
‘You served your father in law like he was your own Appa.His last days were a real torture,even to him.How he suffered and how well you served him in all possible ways to ease his pain.No other woman could have done those things.This smile has never left your face since the day I met you.No matter what others gossiped about you you never changed……’.Words refused to come out and he finally managed to say ‘Happy birthday dear…’
She smiled…He hugged her tight.He did not release the embrace for along time.A small knock broke the silence.
‘Bapuji,I got you some kheer….Bapuji…….Bapuji……..’
Leela opened the door slowly and bit back a scream….
Bapuji was lying on the floor clutching Saraswathi amma‘s photo with a smile on his face……
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This is a story that has both fact and fiction.I have heard some facts like child marriages,early widowhood and treatment of widows in those days from my great grand mother.Girls were married off early but stayed with their parents till puberty.They were taken to the in-laws home later on.Diseases and misfortunes were plenty in those days and many young children lost their lives.Some girls became widows even before they knew what had happened.In those days remarriage ,even of the young widow,was considered a taboo.Other events, however, are figments of my imagination.
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Now to the recipe…..
Coconut grated – 1 cup
Rice-1 tablespoon,soaked in water for 10 minutes
Cardamom powder-a pinch
Toasted/fresh coconut to garnish
- Dissolve the jaggery in a little water .[Use just enough water to dissolve the jaggery and not more]. Strain and keep aside.
- Make a paste of the coconut,rice and cardamom powder.
- Heat milk in a heavy bottomed pan and put in diluted jaggery,ground paste.
- Simmer for 10 minutes and remove from heat.
Serve garnished with fresh / toasted coconut.
Since we garnish it with toasted coconut,there is no need to add roasted cashews / raisins .