Bharathi Pandurangan is a woman of indomitable courage. A quirk of fate left her facing challenges that she would rather have not faced. Ironically, Bharathi herself does not feel the transformation and believes she only lived the role that was entrusted to her by her husband’s family. Matter-of-fact while recounting her story, she is grateful to her sister in law and brother in law for guiding her in the initial years.
This story comes to us from her niece, Lakshmi Devaraj (the same sister-in-law’s daughter), who saw her Aunt change from a docile and timid person to a dynamic person capable of taking decisions. Lakshmi believes her Mami (Aunt) underwent a reinvention and realising that her (Mami’s) story has impacted them right from childhood, she chooses to tell and to show how a family can be a support and cause a transformation in an individual. The story is a little more unique as the family that stood by Bharathi was her family by marriage!
Bharathi was born in the year 1953, into a middle class Brahmin family. Her family was large by today’s standards, with 5 sisters and a brother. Her father worked in the railways, which took them to many parts of the country, especially down South.
As theirs was a large family; it was common in those days, to send the children to stay with grandparents, or even aunts and uncles, who would help to raise and educate them. So also Bharathi’s brother was raised by their paternal grandparents, while her elder two sisters were raised by their maternal grandparents. Bharathi herself stayed with her maternal grandparents until she was 4 years old, after which she joined her parents and younger sisters, to start her formal education.
Since her father was employed in the railways, they were constantly moving, so schooling was spread over many places, Guntur, Pakli, Tirupathi and Puthur. (Theirs was a family with Keralite roots, but as they had been living around Andhra, she was used to speaking, reading and writing in Telugu.)
Her family gave a lot of importance to education. Her mother, who had studied up to SSC back in those days, used to encourage all of them to study and would even help them with their daily assignments and examinations. (This is probably how, all of Bharathi’s sisters went on to become working professionals and have held various jobs ranging from railways, to central government teacher, to commercial practice).
When Bharathi was in 9th standard her father was posted to an inconvenient place, so they decided to relocate to Chennai where they took up house in Villivakkam.
Theirs was a close-nit family; Bharathi’s Aunt (mother’s younger sister-Chithi) and Uncle (mother’s brother-Mama) were also there to lend a helping hand. For the next 3 years, till she finished her SSLC (11th standard), Bharathi took a lot of help from her Chithi who was staying in Ayanavaram. Chithi, had completed her BA, B.Ed, and was a teacher in a government school, gave her a lot of support through extra coaching, in Maths/Physics/Chemistry, for which Bharathi would travel every day from Villivakkam to Ayanavaram. All this effort paid off and she completed her 11th standard (SSLC) with a first class. (Back then getting a first class was considered a very big deal!)
After her 11th she joined a polytechnic course. Yet, a unique problem did not allow her to complete the course. She suffered from severe travel sickness and found it extremely difficult to travel up and down by bus every day for her studies. So pretty soon without completing the 2 year course, Bharathi dropped out.
Things moved in a different direction and her marriage was fixed in 1973. The groom was the son of a famous doctor in a village in Kerala. In those days, doctors were rare and her Father-in-law’s service was sought by many villages in that district. So Bharathi married into a very important and influential family in the village. The family she married into was also quite close nit. Her Mother-in-law’s sister lived in the village, and the families interacted with each other on a daily basis.
Very soon, in 1974 and 75, she was the mother of two lovely children. A girl and a boy. Her husband too set up a medical shop close to her father-in-laws nursing home and life was moving very smoothly.
Quirk of fate
It was the year 1980 and all of a sudden her husband contracted jaundice. As her father-in-law was in the medical profession, and probably having a pulse on the seriousness of the ailment, he immediately admitted her husband into the city hospital for treatment. Though given adequate medical attention her husband’s condition deteriorated.
Father-in-law called his daughter (she was in Delhi), without informing her that anything was a-miss. His daughter arrived by train and was surprised to find her father waiting to take her home in the car, which was not the usual practice. Without saying much he asked the driver to take them to the hospital. There, sister saw her younger brother lying on the hospital bed. It was a shock for sister to realise that her brother was very sick. She could but speak a few words with him.
Yet, even as his condition was explained to her, sister still did not get the gravity of the situation completely. Her brother soon went to sleep and she left the hospital to go home. Believing that he would recover and everything would go back to normal.
They did not realise that he had actually slipped into coma.
The family gathered around him. Mother-in-law was insistent that her son was sleeping or resting, and would wake up fit and fine, while Father-in-law was consulting astrological almanacs wondering how he had not seen anything amiss. By this time Sister-in-law’s husband had arrived with their 2 daughters, to provide support to the family. They had just enough time to pour some gangajal into his mouth before he breathed his last.
Bharathi was just 26years old, left with a 6 year old daughter and a 5 year old son.
Their lives were shattered for ever. Bharathi was almost hysterical and isolated herself into a room. All the others tried to cope with their sense of loss and grief and at the same time felt the unfairness of a life taken away so soon and so young.
Bharathi’s Sister-in-law had a daughter, just 9 years old at that time. The entire family was in turmoil and no one was there for the two little children. The young girl of 9 nine took care of the two little ones; bathing, washing, cleaning, feeding and sleeping with them, while the elders tried to cope with the tragedy. No one told her what to do; no one had asked her, she just took on the responsibility. (Necessity can move mountains.) The young boy of five in his innocence wondered what festival was being celebrated in the house, seeing the lamps lit in the hallway.
Donning the mantel
Financially Bharathi was secure as she was still with her in-laws, yet her Sister-in-law and Brother-in-law (SIL’s husband) felt that if she was left by herself or stayed at home she would land up re-living those 6 years of married life and she could literally kill herself with negative thoughts. So they engulfed her into their mature and understanding folds.
Now a in spite of stiff opposition from the elders in the family and in spite of the fact that they were a upper class Brahmin community living in a village, where even today social taboos for women are high; where widows are restricted from mingling with the outside world; where untouchability, casteism, and societal norms play a pivotal role in their living; SIL and BIL became a stand for Bharathi.
Her SIL and husband encouraged and even insisted that she behave, dress and conduct herself as before, and not do anything that would make her stand out as the young widow; which circumstance had made her to be. At this time Bharathi’s parents recalled her, asking her to come to them so that she could resume studies. But Bharathi refused. She decided to stay on with her in-laws.
Despite all odds, SIL and BIL encouraged her to take over the medical shop, and run it the way her husband had done. Yet as they were living in the village she could not step out of the house for one year while she was in mourning. So BIL trained her to run the shop from home for a year. The stock list used to be delivered at home, for her to decide on what orders to place. He trained and coached her about licensing fee, taxes to be paid, and many other aspects. Bharathi was smart and did a wonderful job, running the shop this way very efficiently for a year.
After one year, again SIL came down from Delhi to convince the elders to allow the daughter-in-law to take the next step. So on Vijayadasami day, Bharathi stepped out of her in-laws home, to run the medical shop on her own. With her SIL’s encouragement, love and affection, she found herself taking on challenges that she previously could not have imagined. She was looking at financial independence, emotional independence and a breaking away from societal restrictions.
Bharathi would leave every day, neatly dressed with sticker bindi on her forehead and go along with her FIL as the shop was just next to the nursing home. She was also encouraged to attend ceremonies within family and be an active participant; everyone ensured she was not hurt or ostracised in any way.
She ran the shop capably for 11 years, raising her children and taking care of her in laws at the same time. She even gained courage to dismiss the family cook and took over managing the entire household, children, in-laws, shop, and studies.
Taking over the responsibility of the shop transformed her as a person. She became more confident, motivated and committed to her job. She was financially independent, and she also gained a lot of good will and respect from the people of her village. Literally a turning point.
Through all this, she had her in-laws to support her immensely. They were her pillars, as they guided her towards empowerment and transformation. They refused to allow her to fall into a trap of negativity and self pity. Giving her the shop, was literally giving her the rope to pull herself out of the well into which circumstance had thrown her; and she did come up very well, through her self-determination and hard work.
They moved to a larger town for further studies; later her children went on to finish their studies and picked up jobs in the city. Daughter is now married, while her son works in the city. After her FIL passed away, she sold the shop and moved with her son to the city. Here, she keeps herself occupied looking into the affairs of a temple nearby.
I am her niece, the one who looked after her children, when they were 6 and 5. I was just 9 years old when all this happened. I have literally seen the transformation happen before me. That is why I choose to tell her story.
I am extremely attached to my Mami (uncle’s wife). My uncle himself is a distant memory, but I know and love my Mami very much. She is the warm, loving, exceptional person who was forced to turn a tragedy into a success story.
Our families became even closer after this and the bond that has formed is divine, like she was meant to be a part of our family. I remember spending many summer holidays with Mami and my cousins, playing in the village; growing up together. The manner in which she carried herself and the way she blossomed with the help of her SIL (my mother) is a story I want to share with people.
Even today we find it difficult to talk about the loss and my Mother still sheds tears thinking about her brother. Yet, they did not allow the tragedy to take over their reality and in standing by my Mami, they ensured they not only transformed one woman, but also broke many societal norms and in that way helped transform traditional thinking in their village and within our family as well.
Death can be cruel and sudden, yet those who are left behind are the unfortunate sufferers. We can further deepen the suffering by holding on to petty rituals, and thinking. But my Mother and Father chose to break such norms. They stood by my Mami to create a person who could contribute to society and in that way contribute to creating an emotionally stable and secure family.
(This is a story that was given to me in written format by Lakshmi. I also visited her house to gather more information from family members. I spoke to Bharathi as well, but I could gauge her reluctance in calling this a transformation. Yet as I felt the story touches a chord in its simplicity and its message, we choose to share it with you)