The Good Wife by A Retelling of a Tamil Folk Tale by Pavithra Srinivasan

‘You see now, that I have cause to seek justice,’ I folded my hands and bowed submissively.


Somewhere, a crow quavered drowsily in the afternoon sun. A lazy breeze rustled tree branches. In front of me, seventy Vellalars – members of the farming community – gazed at each other. Some were grave and others wide-eyed, but in all their faces, I glimpsed approval. This was the way of a pious woman, bound to her man, society and God, they seemed to think. This was, indeed, a good wife who sought to be with her husband, as all wives should.


‘Liar!’ shrieked a voice from the other side of the clearing, and the eye of every single villager gathered swivelled to my husband. ‘Don’t you see that she’s lying?’ He stared around wildly. The very richness of his fine silk vetti and elaborate turban only seemed to throw his horror into prominence.


‘A wife may lie, but a mother wouldn’t,’ quoth one venerable elder, calmly chewing vetrilai and paakku. ‘Her little one does not disagree with her mother.’


My husband began to laugh. Rather hysterically. ‘I’ve no idea who that child is,’ he quavered. ‘Please, you must believe me – please – I’m just passing through, to sell my wares and this isn’t…‘


‘Appa,’ my daughter left my side, and ran up to him. ‘Why did you leave us?’ She clutched his vetti with her tiny hands. ‘Were you very angry with me?’

Her frail voice went to my heart. The villagers were similarly moved.


‘A man may treat his wife any way he chooses, but his daughter deserves better,’ said one Vellalar calmly, and I sent him a grateful glance. ‘And yet – we have heard no ill of Bhuvanapathi and his family so far.’


My husband looked grateful at this reprieve. ‘I have always been a man of integrity, and I will do my duty as ordered by the scriptures. My father is a merchant of renown in Kanchipuram; we trade silks across the whole of Thamizhagam. Our family is known to the great Emperor Mahendra Pallavar – may the gods protect him!’


He stepped forward and handed to the sabha, an insignia that bore his family name. ‘It is known that we carry wealth with us, and unscrupulous people covet it.’ He threw a sidelong glance at me. ‘In the name of Mahishasuramardhini, this woman is not my wife. I am unmarried and my father is, even now, arranging a very favourable alliance with the only daughter of Peruman Peruvazhudhi.’


Audible gasps, at this. Peruvazhudhi, as his own name indicated, was connected to the Pandiya warrior-clans down south – but that wasn’t the only reason for his fame. He had almost unchallenged monopoly over the pearl-trade, in Korkkai, jewel among southern sea-ports.


‘Would Peruvazhudhi ally himself with a man without honour?’ My husband made an impassioned plea. ‘Would he give his only daughter, blessed with beauty, intelligence and great wealth, to a man already married, and with a child?’


Everyone turned to look at me. Taking in my bedraggled state, my unkempt hair, and dirt-streaked face.


‘A man may have several wives and live with honour, Ayya,’ I bowed again. ‘Such is prescribed by the scriptures. If his first wife has no issue, or has been given only a girl,’ I pointed to my daughter, now squatting on the ground by my husband, ‘a good man may marry again, with his wife’s consent. I believe myself bound by the laws of Manu and the words of my elders and betters. My husband’s father arranged such a marriage with the illustrious Peruvazhudhi’s daughter; I presented no objection. I did not fly into a fury; nor did I allow our affairs to escape my home. My husband’s claim was just, which is why I did not even inform my father.’ My gaze fell on my husband.


His eyes opened wide. ‘Ayya, this really is not…’


The council, however, was transfixed by my words; the elder put out a gnarled hand. ‘You knew of your husband’s impending marriage?’


‘I have lived in my husband’s home for six years,’ I stated. ‘My daughter turned five when talk of his second marriage began. I consented.’


‘What about physicians?’ His tone had turned rather kind, I noticed. ‘Did no one in your husband’s family think to consult one about your fertility?’


I shook my head. ‘It was not considered necessary.’ I glanced at my husband. ‘My parents are wealthy, but not all their assets can compare to that of Peruvazhudhi of Madurai, Ayya.’


A murmur swept through the crowd. This, I could see from the expression of many elders, was a regrettable state of affairs, but it was the way of the world.


‘A good wife does not protest the decisions of her husband or his family; neither did I,’ I went on. ‘But then, they believed my evil eye would destroy the new bride’s happiness and wanted to banish me to my parent's home. I, who intended to welcome her with an arathi!’ I took a deep breath; an elderly woman in the audience clucked in sympathy. ‘I wept at my mother-in-law’s feet and pleaded with them to keep me, and finally, they relented – but my husband would not. He set off to Chirappalli on business, and ordered me to leave. I refused, and followed him all the way, hoping to change his mind…’ I raised my head as tears ran down my cheeks and my bosom heaved.


‘You seem a good woman, Amma, and so far, you have proven yourself a dharmapathini, conforming to the scriptures,’ said one elder. ‘And yet, one must, in fairness to Bhuvanapathi here, allow him some leeway. His insignia proves his claim; his family is well-known to us, as they have passed by this trade-route for generations. You, on the other hand…’


‘Ah, Goddess Makali! How may a woman prove that she is who she says? How may I prove my chastity?’ I wailed. ‘Will the heavens not rend themselves if a good woman’s honour is smirched? Will the earth not cleave in two, should her integrity be questioned?’


A murmur rose among the villagers, especially the women.


‘You said that you had not even informed your father, when your husband’s people arranged his second marriage,’ spoke the elder. ‘You say you have lived with your in-laws as well, all this time. Clearly, you may ask the aid of your people to verify your claims, in which case, there will be no further obstacles towards re-uniting with your husband.’


‘My parents live in the Sri Vijaya kingdom, honoured elders,’ I replied. ‘As you know, that is a journey of many months over sea – and though I have no objection to sending them an olai, I fear that would not answer the purpose. Else, would I not have made a petition to the King himself, at Kanchi?’


‘Yes, why didn’t you?’ my husband asked, suddenly. ‘Because you knew I wasn’t your husband. You can shriek to high heaven about family, but you won’t dare show your face at my home or the royal palace!’


‘I will go anywhere, be they palaces, or the assemblies of Pazhaiyanur,’ I said, ‘to prove that I am your wife in the eyes of the divine Ekaambareswarar.’ I pulled out the thali that had lain hidden in the folds of my cotton seelai until now, and displayed it. ‘It is inauspicious to make such a display, as it attracts the displeasure of the gods,’ I brought it to my eyes and then concealed it once more. ‘But I have been left with no alternative. Send an olai, by all means to my parents; send an olai to my in-laws, as well. They will be greatly distressed, but they will confirm what my husband and the whole of Kanchi already knows – we are married, and have a daughter together.’


‘Well…’ the elder hesitated. ‘It all does seem to be in order.’


My husband’s head sank as low as it could go. I looked at him for a while, bit my lips, and turned to the elders again.


‘Ayya,’ I addressed the oldest member of the council. ‘I am Neeli, the lawful wedded wife of Bhuvanapathi, son of the illustrious Manikka Boopathi, grandson of the noble Valaiyaapathi, of the House of Emeralds, of the peerless city of Kanchi. There sits my daughter, Ulagudaiyaal, at his feet, wondering why her father won’t even look at her. Send an olai by all means to the capital, and you will know that every word I have spoken is the truth. I shall stay here with my daughter, until you receive word that I am who I am. But I also ask you to extend the same courtesy to my husband – make him stay in Pazhaiyanur, as well. One night is all I ask you, Ayya.’


I turned to the villagers, now listening so hard I wondered if their ears might fall off. ‘Noble men and women, all of you live with your spouses and children, tending your lands in harmony. Why must I be deprived of the same joy? I know not why my husband refuses to acknowledge me, or my child – but whatever crime I have done, I beg his pardon.’ I walked forward, fell at my husband’s feet, and placed my hands in the dust. ‘I am sorry if I have displeased you. Please, please take me back. If not for me, then for our daughter.’


The murmurs grew louder.


‘One night,’ I turned to the elders again. ‘One night, to show my husband that I am truly his wife.’ I lowered my head, feeling myself blush. ‘One night, to show myself.’


I saw my husband’s feet take a step backward, and raised my head. He was looking down at me, and the expression in his face …


The gathering had fallen silent.


The elder cleared his throat. ‘A just woman’s claims may not be ignored. Pazhaiyanur has always prided itself on abiding by the laws of Manu, father of all mankind. Neeli’s identity may be verified by sending messages to her husband’s home, in Kanchi.’ He made a sign, and someone took down his words on a palm-leaf. ‘There seems to be no reason to disregard her present request, however, and this council grants her permission to spend tonight in the company of Bhuvanapathi, her husband.’


I rose, and prostrated myself in front of the council.


‘No,’ my husband protested feebly. ‘You can’t do this – she is not my wife. You…’ His eyes swung around, panicked; his limbs twitched. ‘This woman is an imposter. She is not … my wife is away, to her parents’ home…’


‘You said, just now, that you were unmarried,’ the elder snapped. ‘Were you perjuring yourself, then?’


‘I … forgot,’ Bhuvanapathi said, pleading. ‘Beg pardon, but don’t make me spend the night with this woman…’


‘Are you so lost to your senses that you deny the right of a chaste woman, Ayya?’ The elder was now furious. ‘Deny her, and the Goddess will exact a fearsome revenge!’


‘She already has,’ my husband said, heavily. ‘My god, don’t you see?’ he shouted. ‘Can’t you realise that this woman is…’ he stopped and stared at me. Then, he looked at the elders. ‘If anything happens to me, you are responsible.’


Tears began to stream down my face. ‘I thank the elders for having granted my wish – but now that my lord fears my very presence, I may as well leave.’


They looked at me, eyes soft with compassion. ‘But where will you go, good woman? You have done no wrong, save follow your husband’s footsteps. Your in-laws do not seem to care whether you stay or leave; your parents may not be here for months. What will you do?’


‘I and my daughter shall fast unto death.’


‘Pazhaiyanur shall not bear the blame for the deaths of two innocents.’ The elder’s face hardened and he turned to my husband. ‘You will spend tonight with your wife. But since you seem so worried about your life, I promise that you will be unharmed, this night. And if I fail,’ his voice rang with righteousness, ‘I and my fellow council-members shall immolate ourselves in a sacrificial fire, before the Goddess!’


The crowd’s murmurs resolved into shouts and chants.




That evening was the happiest of my life.


The council elder sheltered me and Ulagudaiyaal in his own home. The women of the family led me to a coconut grove in their backyard, where a large anda frothed and bubbled with hot water. They left me to myself. After a long spell of parched wanderings in the desert, I had finally found an oasis.


For the first time in many, many days, I felt carefree as I glanced up at the deep blue sky. Somewhere, a cow mooed; birds twittered.


I was ravenous, I realised. As I walked purposefully, there was a rustling and I caught sight of a farm-worker atop a hay-stack, staring at me.


I smiled at him and went on my way.




The elder’s youngest daughter was braiding my hair.


She couldn’t have been more than fourteen, and seemed to be built of springs as she bounded from my seat to the dressing table, picking and discarding ornaments. Now, she was trying to fix a netrichutti onto my sleek hair and I could feel her firm body pressing into my back.


It didn’t take me much to understand the reason for her excitement. She was at the age when ‘spending the night’ had acquired new meaning.


‘Where will Ulagudaiyaal sleep, tonight?’ Her cheeks dimpled.


‘Your mother has been kind enough to care for her,’ I averted my face, embarrassed. ‘I and my husband will take her with us, tomorrow morning.’


‘Where will you go?’ she asked now, serious. ‘Will they let you stay in Kanchi?’


‘It doesn’t matter,’ I pushed the slender gold bangles on my wrist, lent to me for the night. ‘My place is with my husband. I will be grateful if he will let me share his home. If not, well, a small space in his cowshed will do just as well.’


‘Appa is very taken with you,’ She plaited fragrant jasmine flowers around my long braid. ‘The way you made your case … he said he had never met anyone who was more truly a pathini.’


‘But it was your father who delivered a just verdict. I am indebted to him.’


Beyond the room, there was a commotion. A male voice rose in protest. ‘But I swear to you, Amma, that I couldn’t find the brown cow anywhere…’


Someone shushed him, and the voices faded away.


‘I have a feeling everything will go well,’ the girl looked shyly at me. ‘Your husband will realise what he lost and make amends.’


‘I will be glad if that happens,’ I smiled at her. ‘Your father and the other elders will be spared the necessity of jumping into the sacrificial fire, won’t they?’




Pazhaiyanur, I thought, was beautiful, at night.


I had passed neat rows of houses lit with oil lamps, while twinkling stars mirrored them above. In the distance, the small temple gopuram stood silhouetted against the night sky, glittering with more lamps. I sent a prayer, asking for strength.


The women accompanied me to a small hut in the middle of rice fields, led me within, made me sit on a cot hurriedly strung with jasmine and then left, with much giggling.


The door closed. The voices faded away.


‘Why are you doing this to me?’


My husband – I hadn’t seen him until now – was crouched against the wall, hands clasped across his knees, trembling.


‘I am a wife, trying to be with her husband,’ I went close to him. He shrank, eyes so wide I could see the whites in startling contrast to his deep brown skin.


‘Liar,’ he stuttered. ‘You … trapped me…’


‘How?’ I asked. ‘You and your family did arrange a second marriage with Peruvazhudhi’s daughter, didn’t you? I pleaded to be allowed to stay, but you refused at first, didn’t you? Finally you relented – and then asked me to accompany you on a trip to Chirappalli, didn’t you?’


I was so close to him now that I could feel his breath. Suddenly, he pushed me away.


‘You’re not my wife,’ he crawled away on all fours. ‘Not my wife – not my wife – you can’t be her. I don’t have a daughter – you’re not my wife –!’


‘How could you?’ I asked sadly. ‘After everything we’ve been through … look at me. Look closely. And tell me what you see.’


He stopped, his eyes alighting and then skittering away from me at me. ‘You look the same,’ he said, finally, gaining courage from the fact that I hadn’t moved from my place. ‘The same eyes and nose and…’


‘The same waist you used to clasp, when we were first married,’ I said. ‘The same lips you used to kiss. The same breasts you used to…’ I stopped.


He was now staring at me, wonder and confusion warring on his face. ‘Who are you?’


‘Neeli. Wife of…’


Who are you?


‘You tell me.’


He licked his chapped lips. I reached towards a small stool, took the sombu of milk, poured out a tumbler and handed it to him. He scrambled further away.


‘What made you shrink away from me, my lord?’ I asked. My eyes filled with angry tears. ‘My parents may not be as wealthy as Peruvazhudhi, but they are landowners in their own right. You fell in love with me the moment you set eyes on me, you said. And on our first night…’


He put out a hand. ‘How did they find out?’ he asked me. ‘Did her parents send you? Are you her twin-sister or something? Identical in every way?’ he laughed, and it seemed like the cough of a dying man.






‘I can show you the mole on my right thigh…’


‘So you can fool me into sharing a bed with you, and then you can – is that it? This isolated barn – that performance in front of the assembly this afternoon – was it all for this?’


‘My lord…’


‘Don’t!’ He screamed. ‘I’m leaving … you can’t stop me…’


‘But I brought you here,’ I smiled up at him through my tears. ‘Here. In this village. This barn, with the consent of the elders.’


He hesitated by the door. He couldn’t open it – it was latched from the outside. ‘Who are you?’ he asked again, exhausted.


‘Why do you keep asking that?’


‘You can’t be my wife.’


I rose, and walked towards him. ‘Why not?’


His eyes tracked my movement. ‘I killed her.’


I knelt in front of him. Scanned his face. Sensed his fear. Fatigue. And then … resignation.




‘I … bashed her head with a rock. In the jungle. On the way to … to Pazhaiyanur.’




‘Peruvazhudhi wouldn’t give his daughter to a married man.’


‘Where’s her body?’


‘In an abandoned well nearby. I couldn’t…’ he swallowed. Then, he stared at me in wonderment. ‘How could you look just like her?’


‘Like who?’


‘Neeli,’ he whispered. ‘My wife. Neeli.’


‘Because,’ I leaned forward, and whispered into his ears. ‘I am her.’


I looked into his eyes. His breath was coming in short gasps. ‘Not true,’ he whispered. ‘She was dead.’


‘I was.’ I smiled slightly. ‘I still am.’

His jaw dropped. His eyes widened impossibly, as he saw me. Then, he began to scream.


I was so hungry, you see. That brown cow was just not enough.



Pavithra Srinivasan is a writer, journalist, artist, translator and editor – not necessarily in that order. She is fascinated with History, and writes children's fiction for adults. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and she is currently a historical-fiction columnist for Young World, The Hindu’s supplement for children. Her column is named Yester Tales.

She also has a column in Culturama magazine, called Passage to India, where she writes historical fiction for an adult audience.

She has to her credit a collection of historical short-stories for young adults, Little-Known Tales from Well-Known Times: Back to the BCs, Helios Books, 2011; the translation of Kalki’s epic historicals, Sivakamiyin Sabadham, Helios Books, 2012 and Ponniyin Selvan, Tranquebar Press, 2014. She has translated Jeffrey Archer’s short story collection, Mudivil oru Thiruppam, Westland, 2009, and Amish Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy, Westland, 2014, 2015.