Who am I…?

Chapter 1

I looked up at the tallest Gopuram of the Meenakshi temple, the splendid play of colours forever leaving me in awe of the magnificent craftsmanship of those times. To add to that the early morning sun brightening up everything around me brought a strange warmth seeping into my mundane life. This was my favorite momenta and I loved visiting this place. No… I am not at all religious. I love architectural geniuses especially those which have history beneath their veneers. And being born and brought up in the sleepy village… I mean… the holy village, Thirukoshtiyur I have witnessed the Sowmyanarayana Perumal Temple in its radiant glory. Well not just that, I have been soaked into the rituals and hymns surrounding the Almighty who looks over the village and its people. While I respect the beliefs followed, I strongly detest the forceful affliction of certain rules and regulations conveniently bent to suit vested interests.

And how would I know that…? Well, I have spent eighteen summers of my life in that village. Let me introduce myself. I am Soumya Sreedharan (Iyengar) a final year medical student in Madurai Medical college. As my name already suggests, I was named after the temple. Not that I am complaining. The temple in its historical glory boasts of superior architectural marvel, something I am always proud of regarding my village. I have spent hours near the temple tank breathing in the fresh breeze, trying to push away the turmoil I always felt at home. I must have made umpteen plans about running away from home and the same breeze gently warned me about making decisions too rash. I think Lord Vishnu whom I revere, must have played a role in the same. I would then look up at the ‘vimana’ of the temple paragon and as always try to figure out my life in the innumerable mythical stories depicted in the stucco images present. I was brought up with the notion of being chastised or face the direct wrath of Vishnu…in his fierce reincarnation… the Narsimha… The life size image of Lord Narasimha slaying the demon Hiranyakashyap always looked into my eyes in the centre shrine. However far from being scared I was an epitome of confidence whenever I was in the temple sanctums. I often wondered if these tales were meant to teach us life lessons…to follow the path of righteousness or to scare the wits out of us, if we happened to oppose the elders…a specific elder of the house.

In my case it was my thatha (paternal grandfather). The eldest of ten siblings he was a devout Ramanujan…the same Ramanujan who revealed the sacred gospel of Vaishnavadatta philosophy to the world. Long story short, my thatha had his own version of the teachings and had laid down rules for the entire household which he ran with an iron fist. I always thought he was the oldest villager in Thirukoshtiyur, given the way he was respected by everyone around irrespective of the government or municipality positions they held. He was the most sought after to consult on important matters. From the outside everyone would wonder I was privileged to be a part of his clan but… that just ended at that. My thatha had laid down a set of guidelines which were extremely archaic and gender specific in the household and by default almost the entire village followed them to a great extent. Thatha was the self-nominated headman and believed in leading by example. I lived in a huge home, a palatial old school type of make such that it would easily qualify to be a heritage structure if the district authorities had their way. But thatha was dead against it. He prided on maintaining the secrecy at home. The quadrangle in the center boasted of the biggest tulsi plant in a dedicated four-sided stone structure. If our holy shrine at home was presided by Lord Vishnu then tulsi was considered his better half…Goddess Lakshmi. So, we worshipped the Tulsi as well. Thatha believed in the medicinal benefits of the holy herb and my aunt was entrusted the daily chore of plucking select leaves for the puja and select to be used in cooking. Every ritual was followed to the T from dawn to dusk… whether the Suprabhatam blaring into our ears in the morning or the hymns sung at twilight. All the men of the house including my older brother religiously performed the sandhyavandanam (a ritual followed by the brahmin boys after their thread ceremony) and were trained for participation in various temple pursuits. But what pained me the most was even though my brothers were highly educated they didn’t leave the little village in search of greener pastures though they had the opportunities.

There was no religious ceremony or any function in the village which wasn’t presided over by thatha. My father was the oldest of four sons and all three of my uncles were staying together in the same house. We were nine of us siblings and cousins. Six of them boys… who were doctrined and trained from their babyhood to take the ritualistic bloodline ahead. The girls were expected to be well versed in the art of being the apt supporters for their future husbands and upholders of morality. Though no one objected to our education, not everyone was enthusiastic too. Especially when it was about the black sheep in the family…that is…well guessed. Me! I was born about 13 years after my older siblings and was the baby of the family.

There was a time thatha doted on me…in spite of being tanned. But all that changed when I began to question traditions and revolted. I was a voracious reader and the ever inquisitive being in me refused to accept the rules of conduct hands down. Even more, I refused to accept the archaic views enforced upon my siblings especially when my older sister, Anjana was forced to marry a man whom she didn’t even know and much older to her, just because the horoscope match was one in a million. It was two years now and she lived a life of despair. Though living in the adjacent town, she wasn’t allowed to visit us and I missed her terribly. The other girl in the family my older cousin Srilatha, had run away from home with her college sweetheart and was untraceable… so it was obvious that all guarded eyes were now on me. Thatha in particular had been increasingly senile in his attitude towards me. Be it my dressing sense which suddenly became a thorn in his aged, cataract filled eyes or my choice of career as a doctor. I had topped the entrance examinations and the Municipal commissioner himself had presented an award to me so Thatha had relented to let me pursue medical studies. Also, because I apparently brought in the lost glory caused after Srilatha had eloped.

I had an option to take up admission in the local government medical college but I wanted to escape the confines of the house which felt no less than a cage with walls of stereotypical brick and regulatory mortar. So here I am in Madurai… at least an hour away from home… I rarely visited home in these four years. I missed my mom and cousins who sadly were blended totally into the patriarchal grinder and were now unrecognizably stanch followers of age-old traditions. I also missed with increasingly graded intensity, the Sowmya Narayana Perumal temple… my mirage of a retreat, when the going got tough at home. I believed the Almighty had something in store for me.

There was only one family in the entire village who didn’t pay obedience to thatha and that was the migrant family of the Hebbals. They were originally from Shimoga in karnatraka and had migrated here 3 generations ago but even today in spite of their wealth they were considered outsiders. Everyone in their family was highly educated and that they didn’t follow the norms set by the society was the perennial bone of contention between them and thatha. Their offsprings had already moved on to other cities and towns and there was a rumor that once the current patriarch passed, they would sell the house and vast agricultural land and move away. There were rumors about something terrible that had happened in the Hebbal family years ago but no one knew details and the Hebbals guarded their privacy very strictly. One of their daughters Kirti was in my class till 8th grade and though a good friend she never disclosed her family secrets. I liked her for that and also encvied the independence she had. She had moved to a boarding school after 8th grade. The last I had heard she had finished her architectural studies in Chennai.

I couldn’t visit the temple in my village without visiting home so here I was in the world famous Meenakshi Temple, where tourists thronged yearlong for offering their prayers. As for me…I came here once in a fortnight… it was very close to my college. Today especially since it was my birthday… No one had called me from home like always and I knew they didn’t believe in frivolous greetings and celebrations. But as I looked at the beautiful sculptures of Goddess Meeakshi mostly of her valour, which I always looked in awe, I got teary. I had been brave enough to escape the clutches of my household to pursue my dreams. But it would end after a year of internship. I knew thatha who was now almost bedridden wouldn’t still allow my further studies and mom had let it known to me that they had fixed my alliance with someone in a neighboring town. If I had to continue to revolt then I had to earn a living to fund my studies. As I thought over it, my heart clenched and I stared at the beautiful Meenakshi tying the knot with Lord Shiva. Sudued memories began to resurface and sobs raked my body as I moved to a corner and hunched giving in to the tears. I had not cried in the last three and half years but now everything seemed blank…my future seemed bleak.

Suddenly there was a tap on by back and given the scent I knew with out even looking who it was… Anand, whom I was seeing six goddamn months after he had gone AWOL. My best friend from Medical college and the official jester for our entire campus. If anyone could make us laugh it was him. Anand was my senior but that’s all I could tell about him. He had once said in passing, he had flunked his first year and because of his father’s influence he was granted unlimited time to finish his degree. That itself got us cracking up. Like always he showed his face right before my eyes, startling me. He had painted it funny and in spite of everything I smiled and he continued his funny antics till I actually chuckled.

“…this was the day you were welcomed to the world of the Homo sapiens…Soumzie… Happy birthday my friend…” he bowed his tall lean frame making him look funnier forcing a laugh out of my crying self. I knew, irrespective of anyone else remembering my birthday or not, I would have an eventful day.

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