There's a moment in Victor Hugo's mammoth Les Miserables when Jean Valjean is offered the silver candlesticks he stole just a few moments ago as a gift by the very priest he stole it from.
It's curious that the turning point of an epic should happen in the first few pages itself. It is only from there, indeed because of that event that the whole sequence of events unfolds.
Granted, Hugo's magnum opus is far from perfect. It is meandering, but grippingly so. Hugo, that champion of the masses- whose persistently wretched life he described in his book- ended up writing a big ol' coming of age tale- of Fantine, of Cosette, of Marius, of Javert and of Jean Valjean.
It was there, at the doorstep of a priest, stolen silver candlesticks in hand, that Jean Valjean, one of the great heroes of literature came of age.
It is a much overused term- 'coming of age'- particularly in these times of the pseudo psychology that every ingenue counsellor doles out like frogspawn.
Still others dismiss it as inconsequential- a quotidian indulgence of the highly placed, a fruit that the plebeians have no time or luxury to pluck and savour.
And yet, ask any urchin wasting his sorry arse on the street and he'll come up with a ripe long tale as to when he became a man.
Never mind that his manhood stopped with that tale and he regressed into a life devoted to debauchery.
Some people though have a life so spectacularly wretched and unfortunate that there remain no adjectives (or invectives) to curse fate.
This is the appallingly true story of C- whose life reads better than it is lived.
The third child of a litter of 5- with an erotomanic brute of a father and a paan chewing shrew of a mother, she grew in bitter poverty and neglect- raised to be house 'help'.
I still remember looking forward to meeting her whenever we visited that house, those people. Because the adults back then were insufferable. Because there was that uncomplicated friendship only children can make- bereft of class cognizance or social awkwardness.
Hugo himself couldn't have written a more affecting story.
As luck would have it, C's entire family- sister, parents, niece and nephew- ultimately came to work for us.
I use the word 'work' with faint hesitation- perhaps as part of the pretentious bourgeoisie philosophy that shies away from talking about 'house help'.
But C didn't want to remain entrenched in the stench that was her life- and she made the efforts to get out of it. Mum taught her English, she took up a job as a shop assistant.
Then came the delusions of grandeur. It's what we called them, but to C they were rungs of the social ladder that successive generations of the miserables must inevitably climb. C now wanted to become a businesswoman- and on the way to that Everest, she incurred debts amounting to vast sums. And there's no denying it- because through her own naivete and gullibility she had to quit her job.
Rescue- Mum, that democratic drawbridge, going down for eveybody. The debts disappeared.
Flitting between obesity, unrealised dreams and lets face it- a basic stubborn incompetence- C blundered on towards 30. No hint of boyfriends- she was still in the 'brother' phase.
That was when that ogre of a father, that lowly disciple of the Marquis de Sade, got her married to an auto driver somewhere in the bowels of Tamil Nadu's villages. And packed her off- dowry et al.
C never saw her groom before the marriage. And when she did, it was apocalyptic.
A wizened limpy 48 year old monstrosity, he flaunted his mistresses and whores in front of his wife, and fell mysteriously sick to what is known as 'that disease'. C nursed him for a whole year- thanklessly living under leaking roofs while her husband whored the nights out.
And after a year, when she had finally had enough- C hopped onto a train with the scant money she had and returned home, to an unwelcoming household.
By which time the mother had died. Of cancer it turned out.
Now began an endless wait for the husband - either to die or to 'divorce'. An irate father, hateful sisters, a niece who accused her of being a prostitute and a mat in a corner of the house kitchen to sleep on- with 'roaches and rats for company didn't help.
The old man now turned up and demanded his wife.
C put her foot down and refused. And then began a battle for her dowry and a divorce (for a marriage in the temple) in the notoriously male centric panchayats and courts of Tamil Nadu which hasn't been resolved even today.
The one brother she loved was murdered. And the other murders himself senseless everyday with the bottle.
Now C- neither married nor divorced is involved with a married man. In spite of the warnings of well wishers and the threats of doom by naysayers. C talks in hushed tones about how wonderful sex must be. She gets breathless climbing 5 stairs. She refuses to visit a gynecologist due to the 'shame' it would cause to know that a 33 year old might be rapidly reaching menopause.
A few days ago, her 75 year old father threw her out of the house to accommodate his 40 year old new wife.
Today, if you ask her when she 'came of age'- her answer, despite the journey she's had is- A few days ago, when my father disowned me.
Time heals all wounds? Like hell it does.