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Chapter 7: Weddings: My sister’s and mine

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Visalam Balasubramanian was born in Pollachi, on May 17, 1925. She was the second of three children. Having lost her mother at about age 2, she grew up with her siblings, cared for by her father who lived out his life as a widower in Erode. She was married in 1939. Her adult life revolved entirely around her husband and four children. She was a gifted vocalist in the Carnatic tradition, and very well read. Visalam passed away on February 20, 2005.

Editor's note: This is Part 7 of her memoirs, which have been edited for this website. Kamakshi Balasubramanian, her daughter, has added some parenthetical explanatory notes in italics.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

By the time Gowri (Ed. Older sister) crossed her tenth year, my father began worrying about her marriage and my grandfather was pushing him from behind. Every summer my father would get all his tenants to vacate the houses. He got the houses white washed, woodwork painted and all repairs attended to, in readiness for accommodating guests and celebrating the marriage. For three years this went on without the marriage itself getting fixed. My father went half mad. The number of astrologers, the number of prayers and rituals were always on the ever increasing agenda. Everyone known to my father began to feel sorry for him. Eventually she got married by the age of 14 plus a few months. There were three proposals -"alliances," as they were called - that had come close to marriage, consecutively in the years '34,'35, and '36.

Here I wish to narrate a strange happening. Early in 1937, my father got a letter from one Shymala Iyengar, an unattached bachelor, who used to be in Erode years before. He lost an eye in an attack of small-pox, and was referred to as கண்ணிலே பூ விழுந்த ஐய்யரு (kanniley poo vizhunda aiyiru; the Iyer with the mote in the eye) by the people. When he left Erode, nobody knew where he was going nor was anyone bothered. So, that letter that came was nearly a "miracle." He had written from Tirupathy, where he was spending his last days, that in a dream Lord Venkatachalapathy appeared and directed him to tell Srinivsa Iyer of Erode that his daughter would be married to a man bearing His name (Venkateswara) in the middle of chittirai (the first of the twelve months in the Tamil calendar).

And it did turn out that my அத்திம்பேர் (athimber; brother-in-law) is Venkataraman, and Gowri's marriage was celebrated on the 16th of chittirai. There could have been no hocus-pocus, because Shyamala Iyengar did not know my athimber's people, and when his letter came in February or so, even the horoscopes had not been matched. So, my father must have worried so much that God sent this message through a Bhakta (devotee). My father made it a point to take Gowri and athimber soon after the marriage to Tirupathy, search for and locate Sri. Shyamala Iyengar, although it took time.

The bridegroom's party came in three coaches by train and were lodged in several houses. It was possible in those days to book an entire compartment or more from the railways. Music concerts were held on all the four days. Fireworks and four sets of nadaswaram (a wind instrument, traditionally played at weddings in our part of the world) artists were arranged. One set was for the மாப்பிள்ளை அழைப்பு (mappillai azhaippu; ritual and traditional welcome to the bridegroom and his party on the eve of the wedding). Another set was for playing during the festivities, the artists seated in an appointed spot on a stage. A local set for playing while personal invitations were being given to every house in the course of 3-4 evenings prior to the wedding, and each time when a party from the bride's house went to invite the groom and his people for ஒளபாசனம் (aupasanam; the ancient ritual for preserving the sacred fire in a household) twice a day, உூஞ்சல், நலங்கு (oonjal, nalangu, etc.; traditional events  in a marriage ceremony: swing and play-time) and when bath water and toilet things were given formally on all four days to the groom's party. A fourth set was for the procession of the bridal pair around the town on the penultimate evening.

This was for Gowri's wedding.

Soon after her wedding, for which my father spent sleepless nights, spent vast sums of money, he got completely disillusioned. Not only because many people involved in bringing families together in search of a bridegroom were hollow, fraudulent, and deceitful, but also because he realised that he need not scour the earth, worry himself to death for getting a son-in-law. So, with that decision, he did not commence exchanging horoscopes in my case until he was mentally ready for it.

I think I have written most of the important things about my life before wedding. There may be anecdotes creeping in as and when I happen to remember something from the earlier days, but then they might not.

So, on into 1939, the year I got married.

Looking back after all these years I am able to see lots and lots of faults on my side. That is not to say that people in my married home were any the less to blame. My married life had a very rocky beginning. Later, things smoothed out. I have had a wonderful life. Full. Nothing worldly has been missing.

***

My father exchanged my horoscope with only that of my husband - then a young student - and matched the two after consulting quite a few astrologers.

My father-in-law told my father even on his first visit that he was dubbed as "eccentric", "quixotic" by most people. He explained it by saying that he had certain principles. He believed in them and lived by them. What he did inside the four walls of his house was what his conscience dictated to him. He claimed that next to Mahatma Gandhi he was the happiest man. (This is verbatim; what my father-in-law told my father--Visalam).

My father, though impressed by this self-appraisal, wasn't taken in completely. He went on finding out from whatever sources he thought would be truthful what kind of man, in reality, my father-in-law was. All in all, everybody who knew my father-in-law uniformly declared that he was a very honest person. Having worked in a department notorious for corruption and graft, my father-in-law could get along, remain, and continue in service successfully without ever having any kind of scrape with colleagues, who could have been corrupt.

That one plus point weighed greatly with my father. He argued that an honest person must also always speak only the truth. Well. While I won't call my father-in-law untruthful, my finding of him has been he could twist, stretch, or bend the truth, and he did. He was selfish in the sense that he had to dictate to each and every member of his family, and they just had to obey. I considered him an autocrat. He was not generous.

(My husband who is an epitome, personification of generosity, must have inherited it from someone else in that family).

So, the wedding negotiations/talks were more like stipulations, conditions, and drawing up of a stiff contract. Unlike most marriages of those times in our caste, my marriage was not fixed for the earliest date available after agreeing to contract the alliance. There again, my father-in-law gave his word of honour as binding, and that once he had agreed for the marriage, he would not back out. The marriage will go through, if not in that season/year, the next உத்தராயணம் (uttarayanam; the astronomically calculated period roughly between mid-January and mid-July, based on the movement of the Sun). There were superstitions against having an extended engagement. But my father-in-law assured my father not to worry.

There were two reasons for such an eventuality of having to have the wedding itself six months or one year after the formal betrothal. One was, I would be completing fourteen only in May '39 which was the age before which a girl should not be married according to law. It would be "child marriage" and a criminal offence, liable for prosecution. My father-in-law insisted on abiding by it.

The other reason was that my husband's second sister was expecting her fourth baby round about March/April. My father-in-law wanted that she should be in a fit condition to attend the wedding.

So, this period gave more time for talks and discussions; doubts being raised by some relatives and friends on my father-in-law's wordings!

That there would be no talk - absolutely no mention - of dowry was clearly understood. There were also no conditions on how the wedding ceremonies should be conducted and where. Usually the groom's family laid down conditions like what should be the value of jewels and other items given to the bride by her parents, as also the number and value of silver and brass things for setting up her house. And even when they were met, the groom's people generally grumbled about the size or quality of one or the other items.

But my husband's people never even showed any interest in what was being made or given to me. That is a characteristic in the family, as a whole, not to attach much importance to gold, gems, silk sarees with ornate metal-worked borders and trimmings and the like. They did not spurn it; if it was there, it was there. That is all. It might not be there for all the fuss most of the other people made over a finger ring or a gold belt, so far as my husband's family was concerned. It is not a cultivated trait nor an assumed pose.

In fact, in the matter of dowry, presents and gifts, my father-in-law went to the other extreme saying that no costly clothes should be given to the groom, i.e. my husband, because he may not like it. No wrist watch (without which a marriage would have been unheard of then), because he has one of his own; no finger ring because he doesn't wear one!

As a rule, the travel expenses of the groom's party to the place of the wedding was borne by the bride's father. But my father-in-law wouldn't accept the idea of that convention. He was emphatic in saying that if he did not have the money to travel to be at his son's wedding, he need not attend it rather than accept money from someone else.

Occasionally it turned out in later years that my father was giving too much and unnecessarily and that was inexcusable! Actually, my father once "cringed" (உடம்பை வளைத்து குறுக்கிக்கொண்டு மெல்லிய குரலில் - this is added by Visalam in the manuscript; it describes what she meant by "to cringe") and asked my father-in-law, "What else can I give my daughters, Sir? I have money. I want to give them something when I see them," when my father-in-law was giving him a dose of his disapproval.

The point that was being discussed before my wedding was whether I would be allowed to visit my parental home, or would permission be never given. It was well known that the first (elder) daughter-in-law of the house was never allowed to go to her parents' house.

My father-in-law's replies to that question were always ambiguous.

The same question put to my father-in-law in any way by anyone would only elicit answers like "Isn't she like my own daughter? Would I refuse to let my daughter do something that gave her pleasure?"

Or,

"Why should it be that she should come to your place? Your people can come and visit her any time you wish to."

Or,

"Why do you differentiate and say, 'my house' and 'your house'! Aren't both houses 'our houses', common to both? One is as much her house as the other,"

Or, even worse,

"If it should so happen that she doesn't find my house congenial and wishes to go to your place even for a short time, I would feel I have failed to give her the needed cheer," thus making him look a saint and the other person - in this case a young immature girl ­- feel guilty.

One of my father's friends put it bluntly to my father-in-law.

"Look here, Sir, we are only giving our daughter in marriage. We are not selling her to you outright." That did put him in a fix and irked him.

But he squirmed his way out:

"Having chosen to come into my house, would she not think of it as her own house?"

And more on those lines.

Some people thought it would be needling him unnecessarily to dwell on this point. Also, "Does he not say, he would only wish to please your daughter?" they would muse. And that way that question was not solved categorically to the satisfaction of my father or the others at Erode.

Yet, they also thought, after all when a daughter goes away to her husband's house, we don't ask her to come except on special occasions. Those special invitations might not present any problems. With such discussions, they chose to drop it for a while.

When once both my father and father-in-law were satisfied that the horoscopes agreed, my father-in-law told my father that he was more or less guided by considerations of good family and horoscope, and the girl's looks and skills would not come in for scrutiny in great detail. He and his wife would never reject a girl for any reason after they themselves came to "see" one. His contention was, he was the deciding person and when he rejected someone, it would hurt the girl and her parents terribly.

He himself being the father of five daughters he would never do such a thing. First he would send such of his children who would give him a clear picture and on whose judgment he could depend, to meet the girl. Upon this report he would proceed or drop. So, my husband's eldest sister, his elder brother, his fourth sister's husband and brother's mother-in-law came to "see" me in the first group. They spent somewhere near 3-3 1/2 hours in our house.

(Coming to think of it, such visits generate and maintain a high level of tension throughout for both parties. One wishing to please, hiding whatever is considered undesirable or crude in their family, while looking upon the guests with certain suspicion, contained anger, going all out to win their approval; and the other looking for faults and blemishes through crevices, holding themselves superior. These could be eased if such meetings are held in a mutual relation's house or a common place. In those days common places - such as a temple hall - would have been dubbed "cheap" and a fear of failure would rule out any friend's place as a neutral venue).

I was uncomfortable. There was no disrespect shown to anyone.

It was always a standard procedure. Still, I did not like being the one to be scrutinized. So, I put up a very poor show of singing. My relatives were helpless. They knew I was registering my protest for this meaningless convention.

My brother-in-law Narayanan and his brother-in-law, Sri. Venugopalan showed by their behaviour that they liked me.

Then, there arose the question whether I and my people had better not see the proposed groom. Close friends of my father's wanted that they should also be satisfied in every way. They began saying that first of all Mr. TNV (as had become the way we referred to my father-in-law by then) was speaking funnily, in a non-committal way on some issues and in others he could not be contradicted or convinced, yet unconventional in his views and informal on the whole. They saw him as a riddle.

Mr. Doraiswamy Pillai and Mr. Sheikh Mohaideen Saheb wished that I must see my future husband before the final consent was given. They went so far as to say:

"This man, with his rigid views, says that his son will abide by his decision. But what if the son, in case he doesn't like the girl, but has to obey his father, now goes through the wedding and afterwards gives trouble? We must make sure that they have no objection to marry each other, and they are not doing this to fulfil obligations. She is a motherless girl. She won't be able to tell her troubles -if she has any - to anyone who would understand and advise her. So, let us not bend on this one point to his (TNV's) principles."

My father-in-law would not budge. No one among his other children had had the opportunity to see the prospective spouse before wedding. He was not going to make an exception in this son's case, who, incidentally, was the only one remaining to get married, by then. Thus, this was a new question raised from my family and friends.

There ensued some more discussion and correspondence. However adamant my father-in-law was, finally he had to agree to the idea that I would go and see his son. This did not appeal to the people on my side because, according to convention, the prospective bridegroom has to visit the bride's home, and never vice versa. But my father thought he would much rather do things that are unconventional, even tasteless, than let a problem raise its head later for having left it unresolved before, when there was still time to do it! And after a lot of exchange of letters and telegrams, my father took me to Madras.

There also some hemming and hawing arose about where I could see my future husband. He had been instructed not to oblige but he did remain in his place of residence, which happened to be his elder sister's house. She was in the group of four who had come and seen me in Erode. We did not have much time at that point because the next day was Tamil New Year's day, and my father wanted to be home for festivities connected with that special day. Also, there was a cyclone raging then, and it could mean the trains getting delayed or diverted. So we rushed this programme through.

My sister's mother-in-law and sister-in-law accompanied us on this visit, to afford respectability, as there were no other women relatives to go with me.

My father-in-law may have carried a grudge against my father on this point. He would have thought this Srinivasa Iyer will always win his point, if he sets his mind to it. And he may have been getting ready to meet my father's strategies and thwart them, using his authority as the bridegroom's father against the bride's father.

A cook, Subramaniam by name, who was working in my father-in-law's place had just come to Erode to work in one Mr. S. Annaswamy Iyer's (agent in the Imperial Bank of India) house. As I used to go to their house for playing badminton/ping pong, he heard that I was getting married into a family in Tirukkarugavur. This cook couldn't contain his curiosity and had to come over to my father's place the same night and introduce himself. After that he was a frequent visitor, until the time he left Annaswamy Iyer's house in the matter of a few days to go back to my father-in-law's house. He used to tell my father what kind of household it was, what a just man my father-in-law was, how simple he was in his ways, how united and close all the members of that family were and how informed, frank and upright all of them uniformly were.

Considering that no man is a hero to his valet, this kind of glowing tribute and encomiums from a cook pleased my father.

Here I must say how Kandappan (Ed. long-time family staff) was. If my father was anxious and committed to our wellbeing, future, etc., Kandappan was no less anxious or committed. Because I was not his own daughter but actually closer to him at heart, his position was more tense.

So when my father sought reassurance by referring to Subramanian (the cook), and others like one P. O. Sivarama Aiyar, one L. A. Govindaraja Aiyer and Vaithu அண்ணா (Elder brother Vaithu; not clear who this is-Kamakshi) giving such exceptionally flattering opinion of my father-in-law, Kandappan, Parvathy mami and Lakshmanan would be mostly silent, mentally crossing fingers or else they would say, "Well, all right, let's hope that he is all that people say and let him look after our daughter well." This was their attitude.

My father received a letter from one Mr. Ramiah, known to Sri. V.G.K, my sister Gowri's father-in-law. He had summed up saying,

"பெண் சுகப்பட வேண்டுமென்றால் அந்த வீட்டில் கொடுக்கலாம்" (Penn sugappada vendum enral andha veettil kodukkalaam; If one wishes a daughter's welfare, she can be given into that house).

Meanwhile, my father-in-law visited Erode twice travelling between Annur - where my brother-in-law Narayanan was working as a Junior Engineer in the Electricity department, about 30 miles from Erode by road; it was not connected by rail - and Tirukkarugavur.

And so, as soon as my second sister-in-law gave birth to her fourth child (all the four were sons), my father-in-law suggested a number of dates for my wedding. And June 22nd, 1939 was the date chosen.

As I have written earlier, it was a five day celebration with round the clock functions like eating, religious ceremonies, and some socially developed functions that also had spiritual connotation or meaning, and music concerts.

At the conclusion of the regular wedding oupasanams (the Vedic ritual of tending the householder's sacred fire), the grihapravesam (the ceremonial ritual of a bride entering the marital home) was conducted with the same degree of religious connotation and a feast, offered with ceremony and pomp at the groom's place.

Visalam's husband 1939

T. V. Balasubramanian, Visalam's husband, probably 1939.

My father, sister and brother accompanied me, my husband, my father-in-law, mother-in-law, and two elder sisters-in-law on that journey, the rest of the wedding party having gone ahead to Turkkarugavur to arrange for the grihapravesam ceremonies.

My father and brother returned to Erode the next day or so. Gowri (my sister) and I stayed for about 10-15 days. Except for my second sister-in-law, all the others left one by one, including my husband, for their places. Gowri (my eldest sister-in-law whose name is the same as my own sister's), Kalpakam, my youngest sister-in-law, and my husband left for Madras. Narayanan (my brother-in-law) and his family for Annur. Lalitha (my fourth sister-in-law) with her children to Madras (I think) and Nagammal (my third sister-in-law) with daughters to Sivagangai.

My own children know all of these relatives well. We have had close ties with all of them. I was thinking of Carla (now Dr. Carla Petievich, then a young visiting scholar from the US, and a much-loved friend of our family-Kamakshi) when I began to add these details.

My husband was then preparing for competitive exams, and looking out for jobs, having acquired specialized degrees in science. He was 22, and living in Madras with his sister, Gowri. She had a full house to run, with her own rather heavy responsibilities.

Gowri பெரியம்மா (periamma; kinship term for an elder aunt), as I always called my sister-in-law was married to N. Raghava Iyer, who had a string of banking degrees but was working in a provincial bank owing to his indifferent health. Their children were born a little late into their marriage. Balam, the firstborn, was a good-looking girl but slightly underdeveloped mentally. Next came Natesan. The third child was also a boy (Viswanathan) who had problems with his digestion as well as speech and, sadly, he was also mentally somewhat underdeveloped. At the time of my wedding, she had, in her house, her younger brother (my husband), younger sister Mathura periamma's son Mahalingam, and Nagamma sithi's son Kalyanam, and her husband's brother's son, M.R. Krishnamurthy. This was how families shared responsibilities those days.

____________________________________________________

© Kamakshi Balasubramanian 2015

Editor's note: I approve all comments written by people; the comments must be related to the story. The purpose of the approval process is to prevent unwanted comments, inserted by software robots, which have nothing to do with the story.

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Mohan Raj   |2015-11-19
What a wealth of family detail, embedded into the narrative, in itself so
reflective of the times and the specific cultural milieu prevailing then.
Amrita Mahapatra   |2015-11-20
Wonderful narration. I am from Punjab where traditions are somewhat different
and yet similar in spirit. In our lifetime India and its traditions have changed
a lot. Writings like this record India's history for posterity. Thank-you for
doing this.
Mahalakshmi   |2015-11-24
Most of the wedding ceremonies such as Oonjal, Nalangu, Vilaiyadal were done to
make the bride and groom relax in each other's company for they were not only
quite young but also would not have had an opportunity to even utter a word to
each other until after the nuptials. One such is the bride being carried on the
shoulders of the maternal uncle. Imagine if this had persisted in these days!
Even 14 is too old for it, it was from even earlier days when the bride would
have been well under 10. Girls marrying age did vary quite a lot though, based
on family tradition and whether her family was one of the first ones to seek
formal higher education for its daughters.

It should be noted that there were
already many female doctors, even in places like Erode.
Vinod Puri   |2015-12-28
Fascinating story. Many details are so novel to this reader it is like an alien
culture! Yet we are all Hindus from the same country.
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