PUCL June, 2003


-- By Lalitha Dhara
(Head of the Dept. of Maths/Statistics, Dr. Ambedkar College, Mumbai
and an activist working on Communal Harmony and Women's Empowerment issues.)

Vasanta was my elder sister. She was the eldest in a family of four children. Vasanta was vivacious, she was passionate, she was bright, she was warm. She touched the lives of everyone who crossed her path. Vasanta met an untimely, unjust, undeserved and cruel end. She died at 28. She was crushed under the combined weight of caste, class and gender politics.

Vasanta was born in an orthodox, Tamil-Brahmin family to Narayan, a lower division clerk with the Central Government and his beautiful, young wife Lakshmi in 1938. Ambi, her younger brother, joined her two years later. The third son, Raja, was born after a gap of seven years. I was the youngest - born seven years after Raja.

Vasanta and her brothers were educated in the best missionary schools in Bangalore - their Brahmin background, not withstanding! Vasanta passed her S.S.L.C. with flying colours, but was not sent to college. I cannot afford to give college education to all my children, bemoaned her father and reserved that prerogative for his sons.

After school, Vasanta took up a clerical job at the Post Office. She also gave French and English tuitions. She was more than ready to take up the mantle of family responsibility. The task of educating her younger brothers fell on her slender shoulders and she took up the challenge.

Besides being attractive, Vasanta was talented. Her English was impeccable. She enjoyed Shakespeare and Wodehouse alike. She also took lessons in Carnatic Vocal and Veena and was accomplished in both.

While Vasanta slaved away at the Post Office, her brother Ambi joined college and took up Engineering. Since the family finances proved insufficient to meet his educational needs, Ambi was forced to take up the same clerical job as his sister at the Post Office. He would work nightshifts while attending college during the day. During college vacations, he would work on the day shift alongside his Akka, sharing tiffin and confidences during the lunch break!

Vasanta was passionately fond of her bright, young brothers and had rosy dreams for them. Gradually she began to don the mantle of mother, father and guardian to her brothers and sister, burdened as they were with an irresponsible father; always on the move due to frequent transfers; and an immature, hysterical mother.

I was around eight at that time. Invisible, insignificant - I was a mute spectator of the human drama unfolding before me. Today, I attempt to put those events in perspective as I rewind the mental tape and play it back.

As Vasanta was blossoming into a woman, her sexuality began to assert itself. Her warm and sunny nature attracted men and drew them towards her. She began to go out with male friends to movies and restaurants, defying the norms of lower middle class Bangalore society of the fifties. Vasanta's mother Lakshmi, hardly fifteen years older than her, came down heavily on her daughter's 'promiscuous' behaviour. She would scream at her daughter and call her a slut. She would rave and rant at her wanton behaviour and generally vent her own frustrations on her daughter.

Lakshmi was the only daughter of an affluent doctor. Rendered motherless at an early age, she had been pampered and spoilt by a doting father. Endowed with a beautiful face and figure, she was narcissistic and egotistical to the extreme. She was utterly contemptuous of the country bumpkin she was married to and made no efforts to hide it. Narayan, finding his wife rigid and arrogant, had only one means to control and dominate her - sexual and he used it with gusto. The bedroom became a battlefield where power relations were exercised without restraint.

No wonder then, that Lakshmi, whose own sexuality was thwarted by her boorish husband, resented and resisted her daughter's budding sexuality with all the power in her possession! Vasanta, confronted with her mother's hostility, took a strange decision. She abandoned all coloured clothes from then on and started donning white cotton saree and blouse. She hoped to both appease as well as punish her mother with this act.

White clothes or not, Vasanta could not suppress her passionate nature nor could she keep away the hoardes of male admirers. Soon, she was in love with a young, handsome, eligible man. He returned her love. She waited for him to pop the question of marriage. When he did not, she broached the topic of matrimony, only to discover that his intentions did not include marriage. You see, he was mama's boy and would ultimately settle for a girl of his mother's choice who would possess the 'ideal' virtues of domesticity and servility and fetch a neat dowry in the bargain.

Betrayed, Vasanta braved on - working, learning music, parenting. She built good relations at work. She was the pet student of the 'mami' who taught her music and Veena. She was adored by the major and his wife whose children she tutored.

Vasanta loved to have fun. For Vishu, the Kerala New Year's day, she would buy new clothes for everyone, decorate the house with rangoli and flowers and prepare sweets. On the eve of Vishu, she would arrange the new clothes, samples of different types of grains and a variety of fruits on a platform. A large mirror would also be placed amidst these. Early on Vishu day, she would wake everyone and line them up for a ritual glance into the mirror. After that we would all have a bath, wear new clothes and make merry.

Vasanta's parents were mutually incompatible. They had entered marriage with different expectations and could not fulfill each other's aspirations. Their marriage was bitter, violent. Narayan, frustrated with his wife's insensitivity, would bash her up at the first opportunity. It was also his way of asserting his masculinity.

Even though Vasanta had personality problems with her mother, she empathized with her situation and took up cudgels on her behalf only to earn the wrath of her father.

Vasanta was in a no-win situation. Her mother resented her because she considered Vasanta to be a burden on her. She was unable to find a suitable match for her daughter. An educated Brahmin match came with a fat price tag! Her father hated her for siding with her mother during their ding-dong battles.

The only bright spot in this bleak scenario was that she loved her brothers to distraction who, in turn, adored her.

Pushed into a corner by insensitive parents and an indifferent society, Vasanta developed epileptic fits. One day, while at the office, she fell down. Her body began to be wracked by seizures. Her mouth began salivating. Her teeth chattered. After a few minutes she recovered and went back to work.

Now these fits were a regular feature of her life. Her days were filled with dread and uncertainty. She would be besieged with a fit anywhere, anytime. At this juncture there came a turning point in her life.

A distant country cousin Hari landed up from Trivandrum, at our place. Hari was a musician who came to Bangalore to make his fortune. He had a golden voice and sang divinely. He was also tall and handsome. Vasanta and Hari fell in love with each other. It was love at first sight and it was total. They were lost to the world. For hours, they would croon to each other. Her favourite song was Lata's 'Ye zindagi usi ki hai…'. His was 'Mera naam Raju ….' . They had found haven and heaven in each other's arms. They decided to wed and went to a studio to have their joint photograph snapped. Thereafter, they announced their decision to tie the knot.

Now all hell broke loose. What, marry an uneducated, struggling musician? thundered the uncles. Every one, including the brothers, echoed the same sentiment. The family prestige was at stake! Unilaterally, they decided that Hari was not good enough for their darling sister and proceeded to tear up the Hari-Vasanta photograph to shreds. Little did they realize that they had also torn up her heart, her spirit and her desire to live, in the process. Utterly defeated, Vasanta tried to immolate herself, but her attempts were aborted by the timely intervention of a family member. She was not allowed to live and she was not allowed to die.

As Vasanta's desire to live receded, her illness started progressing. She was admitted to the Bangalore Mental Hospital and spent some six months there. While at NIMHANS, she captured everyone's heart, including the then world famous brain surgeons - Dr.Mani and Dr.Varma who treated her. She was diagnosed as having brain tumour that needed a major head operation lasting twelve hours. Even as she was entering the operation theatre, she joked with the doctors and teased them.

The operation was a failure. Vasanta emerged from the hospital partially paralysed, her eyesight considerably weakened. She had to quit her job. She could no longer indulge in her favourite pastime - reading. Battered in health and spirit, she carried on - braving her mother's hysterical outbursts and her father's indifference. She had only one goal now - her brothers' education!

She wanted Ambi to complete his engineering without hassles. Strange dreams haunted her - A huge temple with a magnificent gopuram was being constructed. Each time it neared completion, the structure came tumbling down. She was petrified. She felt that the dream was symbolic of her aspiration for her brothers. Her spirit battled on but her physique caved in. Her entire right side was paralysed. Her eyesight became blurred. She was worsening.

It was around this time that she drifted into a relation with an advocate living on the top floor of our building. He was in his forties and a very handsome bachelor. It was a mature relation. They liked and respected one another. Once again, she yearned that he would propose to her, but he never managed to get around to doing so. The relation fizzled out.

Let down by parents, used and discarded by men, unable to overcome the obstacles posed by an orthodox society, Vasanta had reached a dead end. She had nowhere to turn.

At this time, our father reached out to her. He came down and took her with him to Ambernath where he lived and worked. Father and daughter turned to each other for support and comfort. Whenever Ambi or Raja visited her at Ambernath, they would read Wodehouse, her favourite author, to her. She would laugh and laugh as she listened to the antics of Bertie Wooster!

Father and daughter now shared a splendid rapport. Narayan would cook and feed his daughter and even comb her hair. Come Sunday, they would travel to Gateway, hand in hand and go boating. Vasanta would dip her hands in the cool water and feel the waves beneath her fingers. Her face would light up. She was at peace with herself.

The fits, meanwhile, continued unabated. On one occasion, the seizures were particularly vicious, lasting the entire night. Next morning, she suddenly stood up and told her father, 'I must go, someone is calling me!' She died soon after ….

Two people were badly scarred by her death. Her brothers, Ambi and Raja!

Akka was the first person that Ambi was really close to; perhaps she was also the last … with her death he withdrew into his shell. It has been thirty years now. He is on the verge of becoming a grandfather. He is yet to emerge from his shell.

Being much younger, Akka's death left Raja shattered. He simply could not accept the fact that his beloved Akka was no more. He looked everywhere for her. He searched high and low. Thirty years down the line, he is still searching!

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