The temple of Padmavati, consort of Lord Venkateshwara of Tirupati, stands half hidden in a tiny town in the plains. Inside the sanctum sanctorum, the goddess sits resplendent in silk; the light of the lamps reflecting in the gold and diamond that bedeck her person. Though divine, she does not know the date and hour when her Lord will come for her, to take her to reside with him up beyond the seven hills, so she is always dressed up and ready for his call.

The Lord, they say, is powerless in this matter despite his infinite power. Having given his word that he will live without her till he has paid off the debt incurred at the wedding, he lives alone, also waiting for the wait to end.

Rich devotees who come to visit the goddess are few. Not many know of her existence in her abode below the hills.

But the goddess is benevolent. Visiting her means to receive not just a glimpse, but also a blessing. Like a mother, knowing that long-travelled children will be tired and weary, the goddess keeps the kitchen running, the fires burning, as the food cooks in readiness for those who seek her out.

People in the long line, which snakes through the iron channels, never go back empty-handed. They receive first a cup fashioned out of dried leaves which a few steps ahead is filled to the brim with a helping of rice. It could be one of four kinds of rice, but the tiny helping is a blessing that fills the heart even as it satisfies the stomach.

I wonder at the legend each time I visit the temple, and at those who must have spun the tale. I wonder, too, at the roles that have been cast for the god and the goddess, and their rather different ways of receiving devotees. He: proud, inaccessible, surrounded by a phalanx of pundits and guards, and reserving his favours for the truly powerful or the truly deserving; she sitting serenely in her chamber and making sure that no one returns unfulfilled.

Such indeed are the prototypes on which we model ourselves. Yet it makes me wonder. Even as we see the roles as guidelines for our own behaviour, especially the bit about women being the nurturers, we bring in other aspects in the gender relationship that mythology has never ever sanctioned.

I think this when on a glass-bottom boat setting out to watch underwater life in the Indian Ocean, I listen to a man yelling at his wife, because he asked her to sit on his right and she chose to lower herself carefully in the bobbing craft, to his left. I watch her expressionless face as she lifts herself up and gingerly navigates her way to cross our legs and her husband’s to reach where he has pointed. I watch, too, the impassive faces of her parents who listen to him shouting at her in front of strangers; and see the closed expression in her daughter’s eyes. Most important, I note the look in her son’s eyes, as he watches. I see in his mind a spool recording a photographic impression. Whether it is his mother’s unspoken pain he has ingested or the fact that his father gets away with bad behaviour— something I don’t know yet. Maybe he doesn’t either.

The fact that the incident comes back to memory tells me I have not forgiven those who played it out. But the ones I hold most guilty are the parents.

Something in our fast-changing society holds on to the mistaken impression that the son-in-law is a sacred object. Maybe in earlier times, with women unlettered and dependent on father, then husband, that was true; a son-in-law had to be kept appeased like a pet snake so he would not sting the hand that tended him. That it should hold good today defies logic.

Nothing in our mythology permits it. In fact, the opposite. The goddess Lakshmi, it is said, left her abode in Vishnu’s heart because he let a sage kick him in anger in his chest. And Vishnu had to appease his wife, wooing her repeatedly through 10 incarnations.

This earthly wife, on the other hand, I am sure, keeps fast praying for the same husband through the next six births.

Inexplicable behaviour that!

Sathya Saran writes on gender issues every fortnight

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