Once upon a time, a little girl named Sarasu was born to Kumar Movie Star. He wasn’t really a movie star; he was a cook who worked for white people, but he looked like Gemini Ganesan and he had a way with women.
Kumar’s first wife gave him 5 children. When Wife Number 1 died, Kumar abandoned the kids and married Wife Number 2 who gave birth to Sarasu and 3 other children. Kumar Movie Star then moved on to Wife Number 3, Wife Number 4, and Wife Number 5, eventually fathering 26 kids before his creative powers waned.
Sarasu’s mother was a beauty who often neglected her little girl. Perhaps this was because the family was desperately poor after Kumar Movie Star abandoned them. Or because two of her babies died. The ones who lived wore rags and often had only one meal a day.
In order to survive, Sarasu’s mother banded together with her cousin Packiamma who had six kids of her own plus Wife Number 1’s three boys. Hard-working, loud-mouthed, and smart, Packiamma took contracts to load lorries deep in the forest and provided an income for the women of her extended family. She also took Sarasu in as her own daughter.
Sarasu’s mother and Packiamma became fast friends. They chopped wattle sticks together, bought onions and chili powder together, coaxed flames from wet firewood, and beat the family’s clothes on river rocks. For fun, they sat on the floor of Kodai Talkies in Munjukkal and watched MGR films. And Shivaji films. And of course, the romantic Gemini Ganesan playing hide-and-go-seek with his lady friends.
When Sarasu was 12 and her period was still nowhere in sight, the family sent her to work as a servant girl in Kerala where she was given food and a room and a modest stipend. She worked there until she was 19, rarely seeing her family until one day Packiamma called her home and married her off.
The new husband was cruel, but not as cruel as his mother and sister-in-law. Sarasu was forced to do construction work by day, handing them her earnings. Then she had to do all the housework. Her eyes stung from acrid wood smoke in the blackened kitchen, her fingers were raw from scrubbing pots with ashes, her toes were numb from washing the clothes in the icy water, and her neck ached from carrying head loads of firewood. Sarasu was only allowed two saris, one to wear and one to wash. She couldn’t eat with the others; they would just throw her scraps.
During this time, she gave birth to two sons. One day when the youngest was barely five, Sarasu’s husband accosted her in the bazaar. He tore off her wedding tali and announced that he had taken a different wife.
“Go back to Kerala. You’re not wanted here. And we’re keeping the boys.”
With no other options, Sarasu was forced to divorce her husband and leave her boys in the hands of their new step-mother and the evil in-laws. She returned to Kerala where she worked as a house keeper for the next 8 years, rarely seeing her sons. The boys were fed a diet heavy with lies and soon refused to see their mother.
Around this time, the brother of the madam for whom Sarasu worked lost his wife to a protracted illness. He had noticed Sarasu’s good character and proposed marriage. Sarasu insisted he come to Kodai to meet Packiamma before giving her consent. This gentleman was a retired postmaster and now worked as the chief accountant in a small business. He traveled to Kodai where Packiamma checked him over.
“Approved!” she said. “He’s a nalla gunam, a good man.”
The two were married and moved back to Kerala. Sarasu was profoundly happy with her new husband and his teen-aged son. Her only sadness was that her own boys continued to hate her.
Thirteen years later, Sarasu’s husband took her aside.
“I am quite old now and won’t live much longer. I want you to know that you are my beloved wife and you will lack for nothing after I’m gone. I’ve made arrangements with my bank and my government pension. You will have an income for as long as you shall live.”
Sarasu moved back to Kodai after a stroke took her husband. She was heart-broken that her sons still refused to have a relationship with her. A few years later, her pillar Packiamma died of cancer. Then Sarasu’s own mother passed.
Just when it seemed like Sarasu would spend the rest of her days alone, the evil mother-in-law gave up the ghost. Sarasu’s sons were now in their mid-twenties. One was a chef in a Kodai hotel and the other an engineer in Chennai. With this woman’s death, the spell was broken. The boys learned of their mother’s true character and came running home.
“There’s no way we’re going to live far away from you, Amma. We have to make up for all those lost years. And after we’re married, our children will need to see their grandmother every day.”
And so the story comes to an end. Sarasu’s first husband is fading away in some forgotten corner. The wife who usurped Sarasu’s place never gave birth to a single child. And Kumar Movie Star? Old and alone, his light finally flickered out, leaving Sarasu’s twenty-five half brothers and sisters to bicker over the scraps.
On those rainy mountain days in Kodai, you will sometimes come across a woman whose face is the same as that of the lonely little girl in the photo. But there’s one big difference. This woman has a smile that can vaporize clouds, our brave and true blue Sarasu.