(Grand Mother’s room. Hema, fifteen, is brooding away, angrily flicking at the pages of a book. It is twilight time.)
Grandmother: Ah, here you are!Been searching for you everywhere.’
Hema: (Listlessly) Why? Who cares about me anyway? Go and call Nalini. Miss Perfect & Lovely is always there to please and simper.
Grandmother : (chuckles) Well, is that the way the wind blows? Angry, are we?
Hema: Grandma, leave me alone. Isn’t it time to light the lamp?
Gramdmother: I have done that. Why don’t you go and pray a bit?
Hema: There is no God.
Grandmother laughs before reaching out to take Hema’s hand in her own.
Grandmother: Last week I thought God was very dear to you. You were always plucking flowers and humming away during the evening. Made a couple of nice jasmine garlands for Krishna, didn’t you? And wore them in your hair equally happily the next morning.
Hema: (Bitterly) I prefer Shiva, the ascetic nowadays.
Grandmother: (Softly) Ah, that is a tough God to lure. Skulls, ashes and snakes…
Hema : (Vehemently) You never know what it means to be always compared and contrasted, do you? And God knows, she is better in every way. Beautiful, clever, studious, adorable…the paragon of virtues!
Grandmother: Who is comparing you, my dear? Nonsense!
Hema: (Wearily) Dad dotes on her. I know she is his late brother’s daughter and he has that soft corner for her. Even Ma is always asking me to emulate Nalini. I cannot stand her, sorry Grandma. I know she is just visiting and things will go back to normal. But sometimes I feel…
Grandmother: (Sharply) Feel what?
Hema: Why does she have to monopolise Raghav all the time? He has not talked to me since Nalini came. I hate it!
Grandmother: That University student who is doing his doctorate under your dad’s guidance?
Hema (Embarassed) I know she is doing her B.A. in English and reads a lot. But Grandma, remember, I read out David Copperfield to you? We have to study the abridged version and it seems they study the original in college. Raghav and she were discussing Steerforth’s character yesterday. I tried to pitch in, but both just ignored me.
Grandmother ( Sighs) Oh, the agonies of the young!
Hema: Don’t you start making fun of me too!
Grandmother: Who said I was? I can understand you perfectly.
Hema: You know Grandma, I feel murderous at times! Am I being dramatic?
Grandmother (Looks away through the window at the setting sun…Darkness creeps in through the skies. There is an eerie silence) No, you are not. Humans feel like that sometimes. It is because we love deeply.
Hema: (Upset) Love? Who is in love here?
Grandmother : Let me tell you a story.
Hema: ( Interested suddenly) Yes?
Grandmother: There were these two girls in a family, you see…One was very pretty and vivacious…the apple of everyone’s eye. The younger girl. The elder one was rather plain featured. You know that people have this prejudice about fair skin in these parts. Well, the elder girl was dusky to boot. The villagers referred to her as the ‘kakkappoovu’ in the family of beauties. The ‘Crow flower’ which unobtrusively grows in wet grounds and river edges. Dark and solemn; with a touch of purple. Looks like a little black crow actually!
Hema (Eagerly) And then?
Grandmother: Characterwise, the elder girl was sober and sincere. The other was rather flippity and vain. This elder girl, she fell in love with a colleague in the school where she taught. She was confident that the man liked her too; since they spent much time discussing books, movies and everything under the sun. So she invited him home one evening.
Hema ( Stirring slowly) Oh, no! I think I know what’s about to happen.
Grandmother: The ways of the world are extremely harsh at times. As you might have guessed, he saw the younger girl and felt attracted. His family proposed marriage.
Hema: Didn’t the elder woman protest? She should have told her sister.
Grandmother: (Sadly) She did, swallowing her pride. Confessed to her younger sister about her deep love. But instead of supporting her, the girl laughed at her! She taunted her sister that no one makes garlands from Kakkappoovu. In fact, it gave her a malicious pleasure in marrying the man whom her sister desired. As I said, the world is a hard, hard, place.
Hema : Go on, please.
Grandmother: Well, as was the custom in those days, the newly married couple got to spend their wedding in the girl’s home. You can understand what the elder girl went through.
Hema ( Agitatedly) That’s so cruel!
Grandmother: That night, the elder girl decided to kill herself. She added posion to a glass of water.
Hema: No, no…
Grandmother: By a quirk of fate, someone came inside the room when she was about to drink it and she had to go out for some time.
Grandmother: When she returned, the glass of water was gone!
Hema: What? Did someone else…?
Grandmother: The next morning, the bride was discovered dead on her wedding bed.
Hema: My God! Is this true?
Grandmother: The situation was so fraught with mystery and pain. The elder girl did not know what to do…She guessed that her sister had somehow taken that glass of water from her room unknowingly. Wracked by guilt, she fell sick. It became a high fever and she started spouting gibberish…
Hema: Please go on…
Grandmother: The police had started investigating the traces of posion in the postmortem report; and had found a small bottle in the elder girl’s room. The whole family suspected her though she was too sick to know. The man whom she loved loathed her; blaming her for killing his beautiful wife. Even her parents were horrified at what they thought she had done! But all this was a hush-hush affair.
(There is a knock at the door. Nalini, twenty, walks in. She is like her name: lovely as a lotus in bloom)
Nalini: Hema, uncle is calling you.
Hema ( On the throes of anxiety at not knowing the end of story and reluctant to include her cousin in that shared moment) I will come in five minutes. Please tell him.
Nalini : (Settling herself comfortably on the cot) What’s this? A copy of C.V. Raman Pillai’s Marthanda Varma? I do adore that Subhadra. What a woman! May I borrow it please?
Grandmother : (Indulgently) Sure, my dear. Careful of those whom you admire! Subhadra dealt with a lot of treachery.
Hema : (Impatiently) Please take it.
(Nalini hums a tune as she makes her way out of the room gracefully.)
Hema: Grandma, tell me what happened at the end?
Grandmother: There was an old cook called Saraswathy who had seen the elder girl take her glass of water to the room. She was also the one who called her outside to discuss about decorating the bridal chamber. The woman swore that the girl was with her all the time and when they returned to her room, there was no glass of water. Saraswathy had seen the elder girl looking around frantically and had asked her the reason. ‘My glass of water! God, where it go?’ The girl apparently started raving and ranting. Saraswathy mocked her for being so upset. ‘I will get you another glass. Someone might have walked in and taken it away for drinking’, she remembered telling her. That saved the girl from prosecution. The death was written off as accidental.
Hema: What happened to the elder sister, Grandma?
Grandmother: She went through a traumatic phase in life. Later, when she recovered, she took a transfer and joined a new school. There, she stayed with some relatives. The eldest son of the family, who was a Captain the army, returned during the vacations and took a liking for the silent, solemn woman. They got married in a simple affair and she joined her husband at his army posting in Shillong soon afterwards.
Hema: Grandma, how do you know all of this?
Grandmother : I just happen to know. The husband was a very understanding man who had seen the cruel realities of life as a soldier. Turned out to be a rock to his wife. They had a happy marriage blessed with twin sons. All was well with her. Now, you run along and pay a visit to Krishna in the puja room. Get some jasmines for Him! Life is not all that bleak even if Steerforth was a strange character!
(Hema smiles at her and thoughtfully moves away)
Grandmother (Alone in the room) : (To herself…) And one of the twin sons married my mother.
( Loosely based on the childhood memory of an old black and white movie)