The Missing Syllable
Lathae, listen to this! You’ve got to! I’m so upset. What’s the use of having a sister if you can’t even tell her how you’ve been insulted by your own family? Listen now, let’s sit here at the dining table and no one will disturb us. Breakfast is done, and lunch is cooked and ready, so we have an hour. Didn’t I tell you about Seema? Yes, exactly, that Seema. Sreedevi’s friend. I still remember the day Sreedevi brought her home for the first time all those months ago. Oh, I didn’t know then that it would turn out like this. Okay, okay, I won’t talk in riddles. I’ll tell you from the beginning.
So, Sreedevi brought home this lovely girl and said, “Ammae, Seema’s my friend and we’re doing our final semester project together. So, you’re going to see her every other day.” And I looked at this girl and I liked her at once. I’m like that. You know that. I’m able to make out if a person is good or bad the moment I see them. And I’ve been right most times. Now, don’t smile. I know I’ve been wrong. But don’t start talking about all the times I was wrong. We only have an hour and they’ll all be coming down and we’ll have to serve lunch and then I won’t be able to talk to you alone.
So, this girl, I liked her very much the moment I saw her. Tall and lissom. And everything about her was so graceful, and when she walked, it looked as though she was floating around. “Ammae, Seema’s a dancer,” said that daughter of mine. You wait, I’m going to teach her that I’m not to be trifled with. Hanh, so she said, “Seema’s learnt Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, and Mohiniyattam.”
I liked this girl and all, but I was thinking too much eye make-up. So, this dancer thing explained it. But I thought that’s alright. She has such lovely eyes. Now, anyone would want to draw attention to them. No harm in that. And she was wearing a large pottu in the middle of her forehead and, you know, the mark of sandalwood paste was almost disappearing from above the pottu. And her long hair was open, done only in a kuli pinnal, and there was a twig of tulsi caught in it. She must’ve had a bath early in the morning and gone to the temple, I thought. And she had on nice jimikkis in her ears. I looked at this tall girl and I loved her. And I looked at my own daughter, and Lathae, I couldn’t help frowning.
You know how much I’ve tried to get her to behave but she’s one stubborn girl. She’s just like Kuttan, so headstrong and wilful. What’s the use of blaming the girl, I sometimes think. It’s in her genes. She’s inherited it from her uncle. How many times I’ve told her to pay attention to her dress. No, she won’t even wear the tiniest earring. I’m sure the piercing must be closed by now. Use a little turmeric paste before your bath, I tell her, and she won’t. And I don’t know from where she’s got that spring-like hair. Someone in Unniettan’s family must’ve had it. Nowadays, all these girls go to the beauty parlour and getting it ironed. And they look so nice. No, she won’t do that. She’s proud of her hair, it seems. Oh, I know it will grow again and look the same, but we can get it done again, no? At least until she gets married. It’s not that Unniettan won’t give her money for that. But she won’t ask him, you know. She’s got all these fancy ideas. She won’t ask her own father for money. Lathae, you don’t know how much I worry about her. From the moment she was born, I’ve been worrying about her. And when I tell her that she says, “How’s your worrying going to help me, Ammae? It’s only going to make you sick. So, stop worrying.” And that makes me smile because it makes sense, no. We should find a suitable boy for this girl, Lathae. It’s not going to be easy. I’ve known that from the moment she was born.
Yes, yes, she’s very good in studies. Always been top of her class. Even Devan asks her to clear his doubts about how to do some things on the computer. And Devan’s five years older. But what’s the use, Lathae? Which man wants a brilliant wife?
Ayyo, sorry! If I talk about Sreedevi, I go on and on. So that day, when Seema came home, I’d made mampazha pulisseri, and I invited them in to have lunch. When Unniettan’s mother was alive, you know how strict she was. She wouldn’t allow that. And you know how they are. Whether they’re chuvappu or not, they obey their mothers. Yes, and our mother also. How she used to make us stand out after coming from school if we didn’t have a dip in the house pond! Remember? No compromise, no matter how hungry we were. But now times have changed a lot, and this is a city, not like our village.
So, Seema liked my mampazha pulisseri so much, she finished most of it. And she was so unselfconscious. She called me Ammae and I felt instantly connected to that girl, as though she’d been born from my own womb. After lunch she helped me clean up—Sreedevi never does that—she washed all the vessels. And she’s a very talkative girl. Her language is like ours. She doesn’t have a trace of that northern accent though she’s been brought up there. Listening to her, I felt she might turn out to be someone from the extended family. I wanted to ask her what her family name was, but then Sreedevi hustled her upstairs and then they were shut up in the study room working on their project together. I peeped in when I went to take down the dried clothes from the terrace and they were deep in discussion. My daughter didn’t pay me any attention, but Seema looked up and smiled and nodded respectfully. She is so well-behaved, that girl.
That was how it started. And somehow Lathae, after this Seema started coming home, I worried less about my Sreedevi. See, she was friends with such a normal, temple-going, jewelery-loving girl. She would come around by and by, I thought. And they were very good friends, I could see that. So that month, when I paid my usual visit to Divakara Panikkar, I didn’t show him Sreedevi’s horoscope. Oh, Divakara Panikkar is such a soothing person! And his predictions are so accurate! Even Muktedathi goes to him, I know that for a fact. She might be a chuvappu, but Lathae, when it comes to one’s own children, everyone is anxious, chuvappu or not. Whenever I get too worried, I just pick up the horoscopes and go to consult Divakara Panikkar. He’s a gem.
So that month when I went, I was totally surprised when he said, “How old is your son?” I gave him Devan’s horoscope, and he smiled and asked, “Are you going to take out his horoscope? I think it’s time to get him married.” And I said, “He’s only twenty-six. Isn’t that a bit too early? He’s just got a new job, lot better than the old one.”
Lathae, he’s an expert, this Divakara Panikkar. Sometimes I feel it’s because of the blessing of elders that I got to know him. He took one look at Devan’s horoscope and said, “It would be better to start looking out for a bride now itself. It might take some time.” “Why,” I asked, “Is there anything wrong with the horoscope? Any dosham?” “No, no, no,” Panikkar said. “He has a very unique yogam in his horoscope and getting him married will prove difficult—he has the sanyasa yogam.”
Oh God! All these years, I used to be so worried about Sreedevi, I never paid much attention to Devan’s horoscope. He’s never been any trouble, Lathae, you know that. Such a sweet, mild-mannered boy he is. And now this sanyasa yogam. Just when I was beginning to be a little less worried about Sreedevi because of Seema, see what came up. There has to be something always. Mothers can never be free of worries. Something or the other always keeps cropping up. So, I asked Panikkar, “Isn’t there any solution to this? Any puja I could do? Any vratam I could keep?” I was prepared to do anything for my Devan. So, Panikkar said, “If there is a problem, there is always a solution.” He’s such a relief, this Panikkar. He wrote down a puja for me to perform in Devan’s name. He said it has to be done every month on his star birthday, for nine months straight. And I’d have to get it done at a Krishna temple. I looked at the chit of paper he gave and thought I would get it done even if Unniettan was going to be cross with me about the cost. I’d carried him in my womb for nine months, why wouldn’t I do a puja for nine months. And I thought, there’s our Krishna temple, no? Just a fifteen minute walk. It would be so convenient. So, on each of his star birthdays every month, I woke up early and was at the temple for the morning prayers and had the chief priest perform the svayamvara puja that Panikkar had advised.
And I thought, let’s be practical. So, I called our Nanu Nair, yes, the very person who brought Babu’s alliance for you, Lathae. No, he’s not dead, very much alive and up to date with a new smartphone to do his business. What a strange feeling you have that anyone you’ve not been in touch with is dead. I’ve kept in touch with Nanu Nair all these years. You know, I have my Sreedevi and I knew it was going to be difficult. Nanu Nair is very sarcastic about all those families who only remember him when it is time to take out the horoscope of a girl or boy in their family. But all through these years I’ve been in touch. Every Onam and Vishu, and on all other festival days, I’ve ‘remembered’ him. Every time he was in a financial crisis, I’ve helped out the best I could. I got his youngest daughter a job through Muktedathi’s contacts. I’ve never asked for any personal favours from Muktedathi though she’s my Unniettan’s own sister and her husband is a bigwig in the Party.
I called Nanu Nair home and personally handed over a copy of Devan’s horoscope and a nice photo to him, and told him that yes, we’d formally taken out his horoscope and were on the lookout for a bride. And I didn’t breathe a word about the sanyasa yogam. Nanu Nair promised me he’d do his best. I was sure he would. And he did bring in loads of matches, Lathae. All from good families too. But when I took the horoscopes to Divakara Panikkar, many of them didn’t match. And even with those that matched, Devan didn’t show a spark of interest when I showed him the girls’ photos. “Nice, Ammae,” he’d say. “You needn’t even show me the photos; you just go ahead and fix a girl you like.” He wouldn’t agree to go and see any girl. He said that if he went to see a girl, he’d marry her. When I scolded him, he said, “How’d we feel, Ammae, if someone came to see our Sreedevi and rejected her?” I’d no answer to that. And he wouldn’t look at a single photo. But Divakara Panikkar said that the puja would definitely have its effects, that I just have to be patient and get it done for nine months.
Finally, the ninth star birthday came, and I knew that something significant would happen that day. I was sure Krishna would be kind. I’d prayed so hard. I’d done my best for my child. So as usual, I had a bath and dressed in yellow, Krishna’s favourite colour, and was at the temple for the morning prayers. Lathae, you won’t believe what favourable omens there were, when I started out. Two cows were standing just in front of our gate, and they were on their way to the grazing grounds. Normally, Shanta takes them out much later, I’ve seen that. And when I turned the lane and reached the main road a beautiful lady was walking my way and she had a vessel filled with milk in her hands. Lathae, I’ve never seen that lady in our neighborhood before. Oh, I felt so happy! All the omens were good. I reached the temple, met the chief priest, he’s our uncle’s old friend—you know they went to the same school—and paid him to perform the puja. It is an elaborate puja, Lathae, and so after he had gone into the sanctum sanctorum and shut the door, I stood outside praying. After some time, I thought it would be a good idea to do some pradakshinams while I waited. So, I started going around the outer temple. I finished twenty-one pradakshinams and stood in front of the closed doors praying with all my heart. Krishna, I thought, you were a premavatara. Women lost their hearts to you. Please show me that one woman who will be the perfect match for my son. Just then, the bells rang and the chief priest called me, and I opened my eyes. Lathae, even now you can see how I tear up when I think of that moment. It was as if I’d asked Krishna and he’d answered. As if he’d said here’s the girl you’re looking for. When I opened my eyes, the first person I saw was Seema. She was standing there right beside me waiting patiently after finishing her prayers. It was as though I was seeing Seema for the first time. Here was my son’s bride, I thought. Seema called me but I couldn’t speak, I was crying. Her eyes too filled with tears, she’s such an empathetic girl you see, “Ammae, whatever it is that’s been causing you worry,” she said gently, “may that problem be resolved.” I nodded and held her hands. She offered me a lift in her car, but I declined. I should have gone, Lathae. Then, I would have known the truth.
But let me continue. I started to see Seema in a new light. Krishna had shown her to me. So, I thought now I should help speed up what the lord has decreed. I tried to ask Sreedevi about Seema’s family, her parents, what her father did and all that. And the girls were so busy with their project, Sreedevi never answered me properly. She always kept saying that Seema’s mother was not like me. She allowed her to follow her heart. I couldn’t ask Seema directly because by now she was so close to me, it would be embarrassing. I hadn’t asked her about her father and her family the first time she had come. How could I ask her now, after all these months? But, I thought, those were minor things. We could enquire when the time came. Look at how the girl behaved. There was no doubt she came from a good family. The important thing was to get Devan interested in her.
Lathae, you know how these boys are when they are growing up, how they look at girls. Of course, I’d noticed that Devan would not look at any of them in that way, you know. That was the sanyasa yogam in his horoscope. Why hadn’t I given it some thought? If I’d asked Divakara Panikkar early on, he’d have spotted it right then. But I was concentrating on Sreedevi all the time. But now, I thought, it would be easy. Seema was a beautiful girl. And he was very good to his little sister’s closest friend. There was an easy friendship between them. I thought I’d build on it. And I thought I’d keep my secret till the girls had finished submitting their project and the final exams done. I wanted them both to do well in their exams. No point in throwing in any distractions. But I always made sure Devan dropped Seema back home if she stayed late. She always insisted on going back home. And I didn’t want her to go alone. Oh, I’d feel so responsible if something bad happened to her! Unniettan used to drop her, but I started making excuses for Devan to drop her. There’s nothing like a quiet night drive along empty roads to bring two people closer.
Lathae, you should have seen how the boy changed. You should have seen the smile on his face whenever Seema came home. You should’ve heard the warmth in his voice. You should have seen how he brought the girls some silly little gifts; how he insisted that we sometimes order food from outside, of course from acceptable restaurants only, how he changed from being a quiet boy to someone who laughed as loudly as Sreedevi. I was so happy.
Sreedevi was as irritating as ever. Now whenever I praised Seema, she had this stupid teasing smile on her face. “Ammae, I see you have your dream daughter. I’m sure you want to sell me at the daughter’s market for some sacks of straw,” she’d tease. And I’d say, “I’m sure you always wanted to sell me at the mother’s market for free” and leave it at that. I thought it was nothing but jealousy. That girl doesn’t like me being nice to other girls. I didn’t know then what it was all about. But Lathae, during those days I was so happy. I had nothing to worry about.
Finally, the project was submitted and the exams were done. I thought it was a good time to tell them about my secret plans for Devan. Lathae, what all plans I made! I took out my palakka necklace, the one which Unniettan’s mother had given me on my wedding day, and I had it polished at the goldsmith’s. I thought it would look so good on Seema’s slender neck. I started planning for a summer wedding. I thought it would be easier for you to come over if the wedding took place during the summer break. Otherwise, you’d make all kinds of excuses about the children missing classes. I even made small little guest lists, thinking that if anybody was forgotten, it wouldn’t be nice. But it was all in vain.
I thought I’d make it a little dramatic. So, I told them all I had something to reveal at supper that night and now when I think about it, I feel I was the one most excited about my secret. I made Devan’s favourite chana bhatura—he likes all these north Indian foods—for the evening and when all of us were seated at the table, I told them everything. About the sanyasa yogam, the pujas, and how Krishna had revealed Seema to me.
There was an awkward silence.
“Take leave on Thursday, Unnietta,” I told him brightly, “and we’ll go and speak to her parents. May be we can hold the wedding during the summer holidays. Then all our relatives will be able to attend.”
Still, no one responded. Something was wrong, I thought. Then they looked at each other and burst out laughing. And Devan smiled mischievously, I’d never seen him look so cheeky, and said, “So that was why you were asking me to drop her back home on all those days!”
They guffawed again. I couldn’t understand.
Then Sreedevi said, “Ammae will you still want Seema as your daughter-in-law when you know her real name?”
“So Seema is not her real name?”
“No. But it is close. There is only a syllable missing. Her name is Naseema.”
“A Muslim! She lied to me. The insolent girl. How dare she!”
“No Ammae it was me. I lied to you. We needed to do the project together. Would you have allowed her as much freedom in the house, if you’d known she was Naseema?”
I should have given my daughter one tight slap right there, but I didn’t. How strict our mother was! God alone knows how many rules we’d followed. Don’t step out there, don’t step in here. We’ve been brought up like that. But I’ve never raised my hand at either of my children. Maybe I’ve been too lenient.
Lathae, it was me. I was blinded. There must’ve been other girls in the temple that day. But I was so blinded by Seema—no, Naseema—that I didn’t notice any of them. It’s my fault, it is. And maybe if I’d prayed harder, maybe she’d have remained Seema.
Veena Narayan is an author who quit her teaching job to be able to devote more time to her writing. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Literature and Aesthetics, Bengaluru Review, Scroll, and Desi Books Review. She is currently working on her second novel about a feisty woman of indeterminate age and her many misadventures. Veena lives in Kochi, a coastal city in the south-western Indian state of Kerala, and blogs at Pencraft. When not reading and writing she enjoys traveling by city buses, tuning into and out of conversations, and enjoying the sense of being alone in a crowd.