She was born on a hot, sultry evening in Kumarakom. With her deliverance came the cry of pain and relief of her mother Damini and the rains in Kerala. A torrential downpour blessed the parched earth and the miserable couple. Peter and Damini.
For five long years they had chosen a life of exile. Exorcised by their respective communities and families for their inter-caste marriage.
Peter eked out a living netting fish of indifferent quality. Damini sold the meagre catch in local markets sitting in front of the toddy shop, fighting the taunts and the drunks. On days when the toddy shop owner took pity and bought her fish, she and Peter managed a square meal.
Damini’s pregnancy had been difficult. Worn down by two prior miscarriages, she was on the brink of death due to malnutrition. Thankfully the child was born prematurely, perhaps saving both mother and daughter.
As Peter sat beside Damini, holding her hand in the darkness of their hut, a sudden flash of lightening lit up the sky. In that one moment of rare happiness, Peter and Damini saw the child’s face, beautiful beyond belief. “We’ll name her Nayantara (literally apple of the eye),”said Peter smiling at Damini.
Something changed with Nayantara’s arrival. The doctor at the government missionary hospital who gave the child free polio drops also gave Peter an interest free loan. Peter bought a larger boat and with his keen sense of the sea, soon expanded his business. The doctor’s debt was repaid with the very best of the daily catch being personally delivered by Peter to the doctor’s residence. The doctor’s son Arjun, two years older to Nayantara, refused to have a meal without a selection of ‘Uncle Peter’s fish’. Damini was now able to afford a prime stall at the market place and there was always a long queue of customers waiting.
Nayantara was simply the prettiest child in the village. Soon she grew up to be the prettiest girl as well. There was something angelic about Nayantara. Despite her beauty, she never evoked any negative emotions in those around her. Her school friends loved her, her teachers adored her and no one in the village was jealous of Peter and Damini and their turn of fortunes.
As Nayantara grew up, so did her secret admirer, Arjun. They had often played uninhibited as children when Peter came to deliver the fish. Now there was awkwardness in their adolescence when they met infrequently. Time passed and Arjun, a bright and strapping youth of seventeen secured a seat in medicine at CMC (Christian Medical College & Hospital), Vellore.
It was time to leave Kumarakom. Arjun could remain bottled no longer. He sent word and they met at the Vembanad Lake. .
Neither spoke. She looked frail but beautiful as always. They just sat on the bench and gazed at the agitation of the water which mirrored their emotions.
“I…” began Arjun with tears in his eyes, overwhelmed.
“Shh...” she said placing a hand over his. “I know what you are feeling right now. I feel the same way too. However a relationship should make us strong, not weak. Go forth into the world. My memories should give you the strength to climb mountains.” She took out a passport size photograph of hers which she had taken for her board exams and gave it to him. He smiled as he studied her formal, serious face in the photograph. On the reverse she had written haltingly, “Him that I love, I want to be free. Even from me.”
Arjun returned home and told his parents. They were overjoyed. Nayantara confessed her love too. Peter met the doctor and kissed his hands and cried profusely. The bond of friendship would soon become one of family.
As Arjun grew from strength to strength in his undergraduate programme, Nayantara’s health deteriorated. She would be fine one day and suddenly ill on another. The doctor tried all medicines and eventually took her for tests in Kottayam. Peter waited anxiously, unable to net any fish that day.
Thankfully, the doctor returned and advised that there was nothing serious but Nayantara would need to go once a week for treatment.
Nayantara started recovering much to the relief of her parents.
One day the doctor returned, face ashen, without Nayantara. “I am shocked,” he told Peter. “She has eloped with Mathew, a disreputable forty-year-old assistant from that hospital! He is an alcoholic and a widower.”
Word spread rapidly through the town. Peter and Damini were devastated. Peter said, "I do not believe that she would do this to us. I will go and meet her.” Just then there was a telephone call. Nayantara spoke to Peter briefly, “Sorry father, I succumbed to a moment of weakness. I am carrying Mathew’s child. This was the only way out.”
“Don’t ever return to this village,” screamed Peter slamming the phone.
The doctor travelled to Vellore to deliver the news to Arjun. Looking at his son’s face harden, the doctor realised that something in him was broken forever.
“Well, she had told me to remember her and be strong. I did not realise that she would test me on it,” he said.
The storm in Kumarakom passed. People stopped talking about their beautiful angel who had become a demon. Peter and Damini survived the ordeal on the strength of the fury they felt for their daughter.
Arjun completed his studies abroad and joined work in a hospital in the US. Soon it was Arjun’s wedding day. As the doctor stood and blessed the couple touching his feet, he saw Peter and Damini in a corner looking forlornly at Arjun.
“Dear God,” he prayed. “Please forgive me.”
He tried to forget the picture of Nayantara lying in her bed in the hospital dying of leukaemia. Frail, beautiful and resolute. She had taken a vow from him a day before she had died. Minutes after she had spoken to her father for the last time. The vow of silence.