Translated by J Devika
They were arguing inside; they didn’t notice that I had stepped soundlessly on the veranda. Her mother was saying, “Yes, after some more years, not even this! Did even a dog look at you all this while? Two years after the exam and the grand victory?”
“Really?” That was her voice. “I didn’t notice! I have too many fun things to do!”
“Once the fun ends, then even if you fall at someone’s feet, you’ll get no attention,” That drone was of her paternal aunt’s. I was one of her favourites.
“Are you sleepy, Ammayi?” she laughed. “I’ll sing you to sleep! Soja …”
“Leave the lullaby,” Aunt said briskly. “Look here, child, it is alright to be stubborn about not wanting a husband till no one proposes – that’ll protect your pride. But if a good fellow does turn up, it’s better to change your mind for the sake of your parents!”
That practical-minded lady had flung a bomb into her very guts, I thought. She stamped her feet petulantly and asked, “Are all of you out to attack me?”
“Great! They agreed to this only because of they think highly of me,” said the aunt. She lowered her voice and tried gentleness first.
“The house at Pattom has two storeys. They’re buying a car.”
“Living without such things isn’t troubling me in any way?
“My child, just think. Even if he hasn’t gone to college, isn’t his money worthwhile? To see you prospering …“
“Okay, here goes, I have decided to prosper,” she gave up, helpless. “But I am asking you, what is this for?”
“What for? What everyone agrees is the best-“
“Everyone except me. What good will our conjugal existence do to the world?”
“You hussy, don’t get too big!” Mother was angry now. “She’s going to save the world all by herself! Now tell me, are you willing?”
“Let your wish be fulfilled, Amma. Aren’t human beings born with debts and duties? You’ll be happy if the two of us jointly push up the population numbers! But, let me tell you, if the babies aren’t fair-skinned, I won’t touch them.”
I gnashed my teeth and glanced at my body. How could I leave without teaching her a lesson? Her mother said, “Alright, I’ll bring them up. After all, it’s me who bought this waywardness in you with hard cash! You think you are a great beauty?”
“I didn’t ask for anyone to behold my beauty. Anyway, if you are all going to sulk…“
“Yes, yes, sulk!” The aunt sounded sarcastic. “Once you leave, you aren’t going to stay away a single day from him!”
Given the difference between us, I decided that the best thing was self-rule. When I went there the day after we got married, she and her crowd of friends– women and men – were having a grand time! My eyes, which had first opened to this world in a narrow little windowless room in an ancient taravad in the countryside, reddened with rage. But I didn’t reveal the tiniest bit of irritation just because I didn’t want these educated types to think of me to be the uncouth country-bumpkin.
Four or five children came running out of the house all excited to see us. She and I were lined up like display-objects in front of my sister, who was resting after child-birth. Sister aimed a silent, sharp look that sent the children hurtling out into the yard – and she too ran out with them.
“What examination has she passed?”
“How are you going to control her? If you have children, she’ll leave them somewhere and run off to play?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it, chechi,” I said, sounding like a valiant general amassing troops to suppress a recalcitrant feudatory. “She hasn’t got over playing with male friends. That ego of hers will be deflated soon, won’t it be?”
On our way back in the car, I asked her, “Why didn’t you chat with my sister? Didn’t like the sight of her?”
Paying no attention to my ire, she asked, “How many children does she have?”
“Eight in all. Three boys and five girls. Two were still-born. Once–“
“Your memory is excellent,” she burst out laughing, “looks like she is very fond of her younger brother?”
Suddenly, she remarked seriously, “In her next birth, she will be a silk-worm.”
“How do you know?” Her solemn-sounding prophecy caught me unawares.
“A female silk-worm has no other job except laying eggs!”
I was really angry. But what to do! She was doubled up with laughter, face covered with her palms. In the end she said, “Yes, Tagore has said, the chief duty of a woman is motherhood …”
I went through many of her letters. In none of them did I find any traces of an earlier love. But some letters written in Hindi disturbed me. One day, seeing her giggle reading one of the letters, I was irked, and asked, “What’s so funny?”
“One of my friends has married a chap eight years her junior.”
“Is it a wedding invitation?”
“No, but it’s all written up in a very amusing way!”
“Remember, the group I introduced you to, in that a short chap in a green shirt with a blue-stone ring on his left-hand finger—“
“Who the heck?” I was really annoyed. So she remembered this fellow so clearly! Why should he write all this to her? I asked, “Who is he to you?”
“Oh! A really good friend! She didn’t notice that I was fuming. Suddenly, her face fell and she said, “How sad! I too had wanted a baby-brother-husband, younger to me. Instead I got an eight-year-senior—“
“That would have been fun, right?” I wanted to say, but was so incensed, I choked.
“Yes-yes-yes”, she kept laughing.
Seeing joy and sadness flash up and disappear on her face, I said in a voice heavy with contempt, “Since you are such a great actress you should’ve been in the movies. You’d have liked that life too!”
“But, what can be done!” Her tone was sorrowful. “If I start singing, the movie-makers will all run for their lives!”
My heart did not accuse me of wrongdoing when I gave two rupees to my childhood playmate Janaki thinking of her four fatherless children. But my conscience still nagged me that I may have not done the right thing by my wife. I, however, took relief in the fact that she didn’t know of it. That night, eagerly reading a book, she turned her head towards me and asked, “You were talking a long time this morning to that lady called Janaki? What did you give her in the end?”
I blanched, and said, “Two rupees”.
Question asked, she returned to the book, and observed, “Thomas Hardy places such value on women! That country seems decent. Two or more men, all gawking, and seeking the same woman. How many people are in love with that Bathsheba!”
Because I was immersed in my anxieties about Janaki, I asked, “Do you suspect that I love her in a similar way?”
Not taking her eyes off the book, she asked, “Who? Bathsheba?”
The driver was careless in his driving because it was a country-road. She leaped out of the car after it knocked someone down and helped up the handsome man who had been hit. I didn’t like her sympathy, but kept quiet out of decency. I also did not reject her suggestion that he must be taken home and cared for. But she nursed him so much that I began to have some legitimate doubts. Maybe what I did was wrong. But what was the point in hiding it? According to King Dushyanta, in instances of doubt, your temperament was the proof! I decided to eavesdrop. When I got there, he was saying, “Anyway, very glad that we met.”
“Oh, I am not that happy,” she said, and her response surprised me. “Besides, I am sorry about these cuts and bruises.”
He bent down and checked the bandages she had tied and asked, “Where is your husband?”
“Not here, I think.” Such annoyance in her voice even when I was merely spoken of!
He glanced around slyly and said something to her in a low voice.
“Since you are better now, do leave,” she said in a tone that abandoned pleasing tone of a hostess and assumed the quality of a command. “I listened to you then. But remember now– this is my husband’s house.”
I couldn’t see the expression on her face. He laughed out loud and said, “Alright, I will come and see you where your husband won’t be around!”
As soon as he got past the door I went straight up to her and said, “Isn’t it time to end this gallivanting? I may not know much, but when you live on my money you have to obey me.”
I was apprehensive that she would defeat me with laughter and a repartee, but to my astonishment, she said, “I am going home. I don’t want partners to share the fruits of my evil deeds.”
“Alright. It’s convenient for him to meet you there,” said I, going over and sitting on the cot. She sat on the chair, combed her hair, lined her eyes, plastered her face, and hung two little fans (useful in summer) on her ear-lobes. Then as she opened the almirah to take out a sari, she called out to the servant boy, “Hey, tell the next mistress who arrives here not to throw all this out and to keep it all in order.”
Seeing her piqued for the first time, he agreed, stunned.
I was in a fix. If it was some ordinary woman in her place, all one had to do was look stern when she wailed, “Take me home now”, and then that quarrel would have turned benign. But was that the case here? I’ll have to go on the road and make peace with this woman used to travelling on her own! Will my pride let me? I could see no way out. Adding final touches to her make-up, she said, “What all must one hear? When you run a car over a living thing, should you consider whether it was a man or a woman, friend or foe, handsome or ugly? If it’s wrong to think that it is but a creature in need of help, then what’s left as ethical in this world?”
She stepped out. When it struck me that I was actually in the wrong, my throat ached all the more. Only when it looked as though I had lost her did I realize how delightful she was. I felt that my life was worthless.
I tried to cover my eyes to stop the tears.
Helpless in the pressure of the waves of happiness rising up within, I was motionless. She came and sat next to me, putting one arm around my neck and pulling my hands off my face with her other hand. She raised my chin up to her and said, “When I went by myself, it was like walking on one leg; achy and unbalanced. Let’s go back together like we came here?”
The dark clouds that had crowded our union turned into fountains washing away the pain of our hearts. “Never mind,” She said. Even Madame Chiang-Kai-Shek must have shed tears after tiffs at home.”
[Mazhaikku Munpu, 1942]