The Whole World in My Hands
This article was published in Tamil language, in the "Tamil Osai" Magazine, a publication of the Tamil Sangam of South Florida.
It was not much hotter in Trichy than it felt two weeks before on the Italian Riviera. Thankfully, I was a young woman who loved warm weather. This was a special day, and the perspiration I felt as I awakened to the bustle of the household at 4 a.m. was pure excitement. We had been summoned to Trichy from a scientific conference in Italy, to attend the wedding of my husband’s second sister. But on this day, the day before her wedding was to begin, my husband and I would be getting married… again.
He was already up and having coffee with his brothers on the rooftop, and our children were still sleeping soundly in the cot beside me. So I jumped up, and took my shower before they woke and came searching for me. Back home in Buffalo, New York our three year old son, Siva, and his little one year old sister, Mehala, weren’t used to all the attention they were receiving in the Trichy household. From the day we arrived, our presence caused quite a stir, so I appreciated a few minutes alone in the cold shower to wash away the tension of our journey.
In mid-August 1969 there were very few Americans who made their way down to the south of India. Even fewer were American women married to Hindu Brahmins.
The day before, we arrived on a flight from Rome, through Bombay and Madras. We were met at the Trichy airport by three of my husband’s 5 brothers, Sundar, Mani and Rishi. The youngest brother, Bhasker was at home with his parents and three sisters, and the other brother Jayanthinathan was back in the States.
It was finally time for my husband’s family in India to meet his family from the U.S. .
I changed into a black silk sari at the Madras airport while waiting for the Trichy flight. I knew my mother-in-law wouldn’t see ‘me’ if she had to look at western clothes. My husband told me I had succeeded in looking fairly non-American, so I proceeded with confidence to usher the children through the door of the home at C-5 Thillainager, as soon as we disembarked from the car.
Coming in from the early afternoon sunlight, the hall seemed very dark. I could hardly make out the figures of my husband’s parents who were sitting on the oongel in the middle of the large room.
My husband reached down, and picked up the two children and carried them into the hall, depositing their first grandchildren softly before his parents. Then, he and I did namaskarams to the two silent parental figures.
With a quick intake of breath, my mamiyar slipped down from the oongel, and disappeared into a front bedroom, leaving us all in consternation.
“Go to your mother,” my mamanar (whom everyone in the family called ‘Anna’) said to my husband.
A few moments later, he returned to the room, and quietly ushered me and the children upstairs to a an equally large, but sunny hall on the first floor. The children and I waited alone for a very long time, hearing murmurings from the family on the ground floor.
Soon enough, Bhagyam, the eldest sister of the family came upstairs carrying a tray with warm milk for the children and a cup of hot, sumptious coffee for me. I was so thankful for the fortification. My earlier bravado was nearly gone. I was glad to have another woman to talk to.
I told Bhagyam that I understood her mother’s feelings.
“See this boy?” I asked.
“If he came home to me after he’d been married for four years and had two children, and I didn’t know anything about them, I would be beside myself with anger. Not because I don’t love him, but because I do love him so dearly.
“It wouldn’t matter to me if his wife were pink or green! The fact that I didn’t know would make me so sad that I would be mad beyond any words.
“Please,” I told Bhagyam, “Please tell that to your mother.”
Twenty minutes later, brother Sundar came upstairs.
“I don’t know what you told Bhagyam to say to Manni (the name the family called their mother) but she wants me to go to the jeweler and have a tali made for you. Tomorrow, you and Dorai will be having a wedding.
I have only worn a nine-yard sari on five occasions. The first was the day I married my husband for the second time.
The morning started with Sundar asking me to choose as sari. There were several saris that Manni wanted to present to her daughters and other women in the family for her second daughter, Shyamala’s wedding. I choose a bright rose pink sari with dark green border.
“Ah,” said Sundar, “that is the one I thought you would choose.”
As the semi-official wedding planner, he seemed satisfied with my choice, so I felt like I hadn’t let down the team’s game plan.
I felt even better, when Bhagyam and Shyamala joined me upstairs to dress me in my new sari. Fortunatly, if I let out the sleeves a little, I could fit in one of Bhagyam’s green blouses.
They oiled my hair with coconut oil, and pulled it slickly back into a rubber band.
“Look what Sundar found,” their youngest sister Geetha nearly shouted and she breathlessly climbed the stairs with a prize hairpiece.
“He had to go to a temple way out of town to get this color,” she exhulted over the dark brown ponytail. “It’s easy to get black, but this color isn’t found too much around here.”
So they added the hairpiece, coiled it into a bun on the back of my neck and pinned it in place with pins much bigger than I’d ever seen before. Then, Shyamala twisted a long string of pikake (that is Hawaiian for ginger flowers…) around the bun.
Next, it was time for makeup. Sundar’s wife, Shanti came upstairs just in the nick of time. She brought up a little plastic cap full of ‘eye-tex’ that Manni had made by mixing oil and charcoal.
Using the edge of a rat-tail comb, Bhagyam had me close my eyes, and she pressed the eye-tex across my lids.
Perhaps you have seen the look of people on television who have had ‘make-overs.’ Well, I truly had a make-over that day. I peered at myself in the little mirror on the dresser, and I hardly recognized the young American mother of the day before.
Our first wedding was simply my husband and me before a justice of the peace in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
For this wedding, my children and my sisters-in-law tearfully and laughingly escorted me down the stairway to the family waiting for us in the hall below.
My husband never looked so sweet or handsome, as he and I laughingly exchanged garlands of flowers. Then his sisters and he tied knots in the yellow string of the tali that they put around my neck.
I watched my mother in law, who stood with full pride throughout the little ceremony. After the tali was tied, she motioned to Bhagyam to have me join two elderly aunties in the little library room off the hall.
Bhagyam closed the door, and asked me to step out of my sari and petticoat. The aunties took one of my mamiyar’s silk nine yard saris, and began to tie the beautiful folds of purple silk around me. It was more beautiful, and softer, than anything I had ever worn. It was like being wrapped in a sweet, warm nectar.
When we emerged, the room was nearly filled with chattering people, as another large contingent of family had arrived for the celebration of Shyamala’s wedding. The room became quieter and quieter as I moved across the hall to my husband. He met me half-way. With great happiness in his eyes, and with our children beside us, we once more did namaskarams to his very happy parents.
Our wedding was only the precursor to the main event. We were expecting the family of the Shyamala’s prospective groom to arrive any minute from Madurai.
Manni was beginning to get upset again. From the way she was looking at me, I could see I was once again a good part of her angst. I’d been told that the groom’s family was extremely orthodox, and Manni wasn’t sure how they would receive the news that the new manni (wife of the elder brother) was an American.
After Manni and I posed for photos, in which we looked very much like members of the same family, I decided to go back upstairs and stay out of sight once again. I returned Manni’s nine yard sari, and changed into another borrowed sari, as I didn’t have one festive enough to greet the groom’s party.
Several of us sat together upstairs, whiling away the time drinking coffee, eating budgies, and eventually putting my tali on a gold chain. My husband and his brothers went downstairs when we heard the clamor of the groom’s family arriving.
Within minutes, my husband was rushing back up to our room.
“You said you have some very dark make-up” he panted, more from emotion it seemed than the run up the stairs. “Put it on.”
I could tell that he and his mother were even more afraid than ever, over the very conservative ways of the groom’s family. I had looked out the window, and seen the groom’s mother get out of the car, and she looked very stern, indeed.
“I’ve been wearing it ever since I got here,” I wailed back at him. That morning after my bath, I took out a tube of ‘extreme dark’ leg tanning lotion that I’d brought from the States and smeared it all over my face and neck and arms. I’d hoped it would help me blend in a little, but obviously, I still stood out like a white handkerchief on a battlefield.
There was nothing to do, it seemed, but take me downstairs. The cat was out of the bag, anyway, as several people mentioned our morning nuptials to the groom’s family. So we gave each other a quick kiss for luck, and went down to our children and family.
Somehow, it didn’t turn out to be a disaster. The groom and his family were gracious and very kind. We were all obviously so concerned about turning the situation into something nice, that it became so by the time the young couple had a chance to meet and the groom’s party was esconced in the house next door.
The next day we would start the three day wedding, but for this afternoon, I was going to enjoy meeting members of our family. One by one, uncles and aunts, cousins and school friends came over for a chat under the pandal set up on the street in front of our house.
For the next week, I found myself going down on my knees, doing namaskarams to dozens and dozens of elders, then, sitting with them and talking of all kinds of things from child care to politics to music. From my brother in law Jayanthinathan, I’d learned a lot about the uncles of the family, so I wasn’t too surprised when Uncle Raju demanded that I sit next to him and show him my palm. (There is an old story that his father also was into palmistry, but mainly because he like to hold the hands of young girls.)
Raju stared into the palm of my hand and declared I had a long life line, and also a good line for marriage. Then he said, “here is what you are going to do. You are going to start an institution… something scientific, or medical. It is going to be very successful.”
“What a silly thing to say,” I thought to myself. I have no education. He probably thinks that because my husband is a scientist, I am one too.”
It has been almost 36 years since Uncle Raju, looking like a sadhu with his seriously big belly and his hairy chest full of necklaces, made his prediction… and I have acquired an education and some serious business skills and even learned not to be so arrogant in the face of my elders.
I just started a new foundation to support a change in organ sharing and transplantation in India. If Raju continues to be correct, it will be very successful.