Her parents named her Megha, which means “cloud” in Sanskrit, perhaps because she cast a gray shadow over their lives at a time when they didn’t expect overcast skies. She was an unexpected, unpleasant surprise ––– rather late in their lives. Her father was in his forties, her mother in her thirties. When they were desperately hoping it would at least turn out to be a boy after having had two girls, now ages thirteen and eleven, she came along ––– another screaming infant girl ––– with all the wants and needs and tribulations of a female, all the burdens of a Hindu Brahmin woman.
Her father never recovered from the disappointment. Her mother quietly accepted it as her destiny. Together they began to contemplate how they would ever manage to put aside enough money to pay three varadakhshinas. Dowries.
Some Hindus believe that if you give your child a depressing name, you can keep evil away from it. They often apply a dot of kohl on a baby’s face to mar its perfection, as no one will be tempted to put a hex on a flawed child. Megha was told she was an unusually beautiful baby, bright and full of energy. She often wondered if the name Megha was her spot of kohl, guaranteed to deflect the evil eye. When asked about it, her mother said the only reason they called her Megha was because they happened to like the name.
Then there was the astrologer, a man known for his accuracy, who had cast her janam–patrika. Horoscope. He had apparently predicted a dark, threatening period in Megha’s life, when a large cloud would settle over her head, and Yama, the god of death, would pay her a visit. He wasn’t able to foretell exactly when… but the menace would come, he’d warned.
It would come. It was bound to come ––– sooner or later.
At the age of twenty–one, Megha Rammath was not only married for year but was about to be executed. In the damp, foggy darkness of the night, she stood outside the woodshed, her brows drawn in puzzlement, the loose end of her plain blue cotton sari tightly drawn around her slim shoulders. Had she heard correctly, or was her mind playing strange tricks on her?
Standing on her toes she peeped into the shed’s window, secretly listening to her would–be murderers whispering, hatching their sinister plan to finish her off.
There was no light anywhere except for the ominous, dull yellow glow coming from the kandeel. Lantern. It barely illuminated the woodpile leaning against the wall in the corner and the two tins of kerosene standing nearby. The concrete floor, reduced to a blotchy gray from decades of sawdust, oil stains, and dirt, looked grungier than ever.
Icy fingers crept down the nape of her neck, telling her something was not right. What was it she sensed? What unexplained electric charge sent chills up and down her spine? Megha strained to listen, trying to make sense of the conversation going on inside the shed.
Kuppa, the fat old calico cat, sat huddled at her feet, shuddering, sending tremors up Megha’s legs. Was he experiencing the eerie feeling she was? Cats could sense danger better than humans. The leaves rustled in the nearby guava tree, making her jump. She looked up, afraid to breathe, but realized it was only some night creature stirring ––– perhaps a bird disturbed by Kuppa’s presence. Just then Kuppa’s back lifted in an arch ––– a definite sign of fear. And Megha’s breathing turned ragged.
Then it dawned on her. Her large dark eyes turned wide with alarm. She was going to be killed! Realization struck her like a punch in the stomach. Terror replaced numbing shock, sending her heartbeat soaring.
Oh, God! Could this really be happening to her? And why? She was an ordinary housewife with a boring life; she had no enemies. She was considered pretty, but it couldn’t possibly be a reason for anyone to kill her. She had no particular talents and posed no threat to anyone. Although her life meant little to anybody but herself, her death would mean even less.
And yet she was going to be murdered!
The most puzzling part of the mystery was that her executioners were none other than her husband, Suresh Ramnath, and his ferocious mother, Chandramma Ramnath.
Galvanized by terror, Megha finally managed to uproot herself and move. She made a mad dash through the backyard ––– away from the woodshed, away from the house.
They were killers ––– and they were coming after her.
At first her steps faltered; she wondered if she’d been foolish, perhaps misunderstood Amma and Suresh’s intent. Having woken up slightly disoriented from a deep sleep, had she somehow overreacted to something that had nothing to do with her? Why would anyone want to kill a young and innocent member of the family? It didn’t make sense.
But there was no mistake. She had heard every word clearly ––– Amma’s remarks to Suresh couldn’t have been any plainer. Their objective was nothing short of execution.
As Megha began to comprehend the grave peril she was in, she gained momentum. She forged ahead blindly in the cloud of fog, with no particular direction in mind, stark fear giving wings to her feet. Every instinct prompted her to keep running, put distance between herself and the Ramnaths and their evil house.
Move! Keep running! Don’t let them find you. Run, woman, her adrenaline–crazed brain repeated furiously. She knew she was trespassing on people’s private properties but she didn’t care. Wet grass, sharp stones, root clumps, fractured cement and thorns grated on her feet. Twice she ran into prickly bushes and trees, tripped and fell, and got her arms and face scratched. But she managed to get up and find her way around them.
Dogs growled at her from the shadows here and there, but fortunately none had pursued her so far. That was all she needed to make this wretched night an absolute curse: a crazed dog taking a bite out of her. Fatigue started to set in after a while but she kept on going.
Time was running out.
Megha stepped on something sharp. It felt like a hot blade slicing into her flesh, sending a stab of pain all the way up her leg and into her groin. She was sure she’d suffered a deep cut, but she didn’t stop to investigate. Shards of broken glass were always a menace on the streets. She couldn’t afford the luxury of stopping to examine her injuries.
Suresh was probably out there, chasing after her. Distance between the Ramnaths and herself ––– that was all she cared about at the moment. She didn’t dare slow down. She was running for her life. Death was not an option and neither was giving in to weakness.
Excerpted from THE DOWRY BRIDE © Copyright 2012 by Shobhan Bantwal. Reprinted with permission by Kensington. All rights reserved.
The Dowry Bride