Husbandhood: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika

 

Balarama Menon wiped his eyes on his shirt-sleeve, sat up in the easy chair, and pressed the calling-bell. Used to hearing the trilling of that bell many times that morning, the servant-boy ran up. Menon told him, “Go to Vimala’s room and get the green trunk. Her mother should have the key to it, get that too.”

The boy brought in a small trunk in a few minutes and lowered it on the floor. Menon got him to take out a small leather box from it. He then told him to lock the trunk and take it away. The boy did as he was told and was about to leave, when his master asked, “Where is Ramakrishnan Nair?”

“Seated by the cradle. No one can get him to move an inch away from there. Shall I tell him that the master called?”

“No. Don’t let anyone enter this room till I say so. And you keep a watch near the door?”

When the servant went out, Menon settled into his chair and picked up the leather box. His eyes grew moist again. He was still, head resting on palms, elbows sinking into the soft fabric of the table-cloth.

He recalled Vimala’s virtues one by one. Unflinching devotion to her husband, immense patience, such eagerness to serve … She was barely seventeen when he had married her. Even at that tender age how exemplary her conduct used to be! Mature and unfussy! God had bestowed on her a special boon, the talent to bring others to her line without quarrels, without squandering words. He had never seen anyone else who could so gently pacify the errant and make them regret their misdeeds. It was her unmatched virtue that stole his heart away from the woman he used to be in love with, Ivy.

The first six months of their marriage rose up vividly in Menon’s memory. He used to work in Madras those days. His love for Ivy and frustration at his parents’ refusal to give in to his choice of a bride ensured that he was little more than a guardian to Vimala. Never in those days did he feel that he should draw her into his life as a husband. He was rarely at home. Mostly, he returned there very late. But no matter how late he was, she would be awake and ready to serve him. He was all the more irked when he noticed that his coldness and neglect had failed to turn her away from wifely duty. But what use was that? Though she silently bore his angry remonstrations, Vimala did not neglect her wifely duties even a little bit.

And thus she ignited guilt in him by displaying before him a saint’s devotion, and not a lover’s desire. In the end, he could not bear it. One night, determined to hurt and anger his wife who greeted him with no complaint at all in the wee hours of dawn, he did his worst. Pulling out all the letters and photos from his relationship with Ivy, he told her about it in detail. She did not faint when she knew about her ill-luck. Her eyes overflowed, but they then glowed even more insistently with wifely love. Her response was the exact opposite of what he had expected.

The result was that from that day, he drew her close and made her his partner in body and soul. And from then on, he could not offer anything beyond friendship to Ivy.

Menon’s fortune seemed to have taken a turn for better since then. Within a month, he was invited to join a factory in Kanpur as Manager. Vimala was actually the happier of the two at that news. She seemed to have no pangs at all about leaving her birthplace.

Her decision was not to go home to give birth. Menon happily gave in. By that time she had become absolutely essential to his existence. What was he to do without her?

But her parents thought the opposite. They insisted that their daughter’s first delivery be at their residence. There was no way to resist. Menon was not able to get leave to take her home, so Vimala’s parents sent someone to fetch her.

They perhaps trusted Ramakrishnan Nair more than their own son-in-law, and so he was tasked with not only bringing her home but also with taking her and the baby back to her husband. Indeed, bringing her home and taking her back became Nair’s job. Menon found that convenient. Long-distance travel with tiny babies and children was a nuisance indeed.

Nobody asked a word about Ramakrishnan Nair’s views in this arrangement. Vimala’s family had been entirely responsible for his rise in life. When he had to end his studies in middle-school, it was they who intervened and made it possible for him to study further, gain a BL degree, and enter the lawyer’s profession. Gradually, he who was a total outsider became as good as a member of that household. He was forever grateful, never forgot, and keen to repay through deeds always. His humility made everyone else treat him as an equal, everyone else except Vimala. Menon was surprised to see Vimala, who was generally very humble, behave rather condescendingly with him. He tried to tell her that, trying to make her see things from Nair’s dependent status, that her behaviour would be really painful to him, but to no avail. But since Nair did not seem pained by Vimala’s behaviour, Menon let it be. He believed that all of Vimala’s acts were rooted in reasons that were unquestionable.

Their life together which was not sweet, but not boring either flew past seven spring-times. Vimala became the mother of three. Menon’s salary shot up to a thousand and two hundred; Nair’s legal practice improved steadily.

When Vimala’s father passed away Menon had to take her and the children back home by himself. But he could not stay back till his wife and mother had healed their sorrow somewhat, nor could he find the time to accompany her back. He asked Vimala to return only after her mother was quite ready to let her go and went back to Kanpur. Vimala’s mother let her go only after full six months. As usual, Ramakrishnan Nair went with her when she returned. But since all the responsibilities at home were on his head, he had to go back at once. Menon bid him goodbye with the advice that he should find a bride immediately who would be a companion and a source of solace to Mother.

That time too, Vimala could not stay with her husband for more than four months. The summer that year was particularly taxing. And Vimala’s pregnancy was also more taxing than usual. Added to this were Mother’s sad letters; Menon soon asked for Nair’s help through a letter. And that man fated to embark on uncomfortable journeys as part of his very horoscope soon arrived to fetch Vimala and the children.

The fifth month after she returned, Vimala gave birth to a baby boy. Though he had to wait till the fourth childbirth, Menon was elated by the news of a baby boy.

But on Holi, when he was out with clothes completely splattered with kumkum colours, he received a telegram that brought terrible news. Vimala was seriously ill and hospitalized, it said, and asked him to return immediately.

Though he flew down, Menon could not see even her dead body. He did wish to see the face of the son who had brought about her death, either. The sorrow that filled him as he shut himself up in a room avoiding all others was terrible, but it was relatively bearable …

Menon sat still, holding the leather box which was now wet with his tears. She had preserved all the letters that he had sent her in their periods of separation – nearly half of their married life. The poor dear! This was how she had tried to relive his presence when they were separated – through these letters! Though he had told her many times that it was a silly thing to do, she persisted. Now it did not seem so silly. This leather box was going to help him take hold of his widower’s life.

Menon’s eyes flooded all the more as he opened the box. He took out two bundles of letters tied with red and blue strings. Unfolding a letter pulled out of a bundle, he waited for his tears to subside.

The first lines emerged vaguely through his tears. He felt that some force, far beyond those of tears, had entered his eyes and even his intellect and dulled it.

Two hours passed, and the calling-bell from Balarama Menon’s room sounded again. The servant who was standing on vigil outside hurried in. Menon’s eyes which had threatened to dissolve into a whole lake earlier, were now burning fiercely like smouldering coals. He asked, “Where is Ramakrishnan Nair?”

“With the baby. Hasn’t had anything at all to eat since morning.”

“Don’t respond to questions I didn’t ask!” Menon yelled at him. “Go, get him right now. If anyone else comes to meet me, tell them I can’t see them.”

Ramakrishnan Nair entered the room with his hair and clothes in total disarray. Menon, head bowed, did not look at him. After a few seconds, he said, “Sit down.”

Ramakrishnan Nair sat on a chair. The two men looked at each other. Nair’s eyes that had somewhat dried, fell on the table-cloth moist with tears. He covered his face with his palms and broke into loud sobs and tears.  Menon began. “I called to speak to you about something urgent. I have decided to return by the evening train today.”

Nair did not uncover his face; nor did his sobs subside. Menon got up, went to him, shook his shoulder firmly, and continued, “Did you not hear? Why are you weeping like this? I am Vimala’s husband. I am the one who should be sobbing so. Why should I watch you bawl like this? Should you do this in my presence?”

Menon sat down again. Nair rubbed his eyes, cleared his throat, stood up, and asked, “What did you call me for?”

Menon pointed to the letters strewn on the floor calmly, as though nothing special had happened. He then spoke in a voice that sounded quite normal. “To return these letters of yours. They were in this leather box I gifted her once. Since she is dead, why keep them anymore?”

No sooner had the sight of those letters fallen on his eyes, than Nair fell back on his chair with his hands gripping his head in shock. His head turned foggy. Vimala was adored by all till her death. Was she now going to become the laughing-stock of town?

Menon kept his eyes on him, silent, unrelenting.

When the tumult in his brain ceased, Nair got down to the floor and began to pick up the letters one by one. The letters he had sent her, and some of her letters to him, were preserved, he could see. He gathered them all and then stood up, hands folded in a gesture of abject begging: “Please don’t blame poor Vimala. Neither she nor I have had even a single moment of happiness. She had no desire at all to keep on living in the middle of social rules that only prod one towards wrongdoing. Nor was I afraid of death. This was just for Vimala’s parents.”

“Charity!” Menon’s voice was more sarcastic than angry.

“Maybe the intention was alright, but it can’t be charity if it is immoral,” said Nair. “I did not want her parents to curse me for being ungrateful. I tried my best to convince her – she was so immature, just seventeen – that it was wrong to keep loving another after marrying someone. In the end when she agreed to be happy with just a connection of the mind and to fulfil her wifely duty well, I considered myself very lucky.”

Contempt and anger filled Menon’s words as he asked, “Therefore you gave her this advice, is it not so?”

“Yes.” Nair’s voice was not that of the wrongdoer’s admitting guilt. “Not for me, not for Vimala. For those two aged bodies to whom she was everything in the world.”

Menon’s face reddened. “Where on earth do people advise others to make parents happy even if that means betraying husbands?”

In a split-second, the beseeching expression left Nair’s face. The memory of the early days of Vimala’s marriage gave him courage. In a firm voice, he replied, “Is that something to be asked, at all?  Precisely the morality of the land where one is advised to marry the girl who satisfies one’s parents, leave her to languish at home, and live with one’s mistress.”

Menon leaped up. “You dare to say this to my face? Do you forget that your place and mine in this world aren’t the same?”

“I don’t forget such things,” said Nair, crossing his arms boldly on his chest and standing up straight. “But such things should be remembered primarily when one is applying for a job or fixing a marriage alliance? Even when it comes of matters of morality, what matters is humanity, compassion, not the difference of status.”

Menon controlled his fury and asked, purely for the sake of argument, “If that is so, at least when I opened up to her about Ivy, Vimala could have told me of all this?

“Please ask yourself the same question? Is it not true that after hearing you out fully, she gave you permission to continue your relationship with Ivy?”

“Yes,” said Menon proudly. “It was I who decided to end it.”

“If Vimala had opened up to you similarly, would you have given her the same gift?”

“Chhi!” For a moment, Menon even forgot to be angry. “What a question? If you had any sense of how the world works, you wouldn’t have asked this. Men have the right to live any which way they please. You who never told her that women’s lives are the exact opposite—“

“My advice would have made no difference. Even this life she believed to be a sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice!” Menon grew angry again. “Writing to her lover using her husband’s hard-earned money, is that sacrifice for her?”

“Is not a great sacrifice also to accept the unwanted? We had hoped to severe all connection gradually. When you found work far away, we thought that staying out of sight of each other would let us forget, but none of you would allow that. And even with the distance, God alone knows how we struggled to control ourselves.”

Menon put his head face down on the table. Nair’s words made that simple soul incapable of assigning blame. Nair too did not know how to get out of the room when Vimala, who had passed away honourably, was at the risk of being dishonoured.

Outside the gate, the horn of the Baby Austin car sounded. The children are being taken out for their evening drive, Menon remembered. “God, I did not even remember this till now!” he cried, shame and sorrow mingling alike in his voice.

Puzzled, Ramakrishnan Nair found no words to respond. Menon raised a pallid face to him and entreated, “Vimala is dead and it is useless to be talking of her. But that is not so about the children. Has she told you which of these are mine?”

Nair did not seem to hear the question. Menon continued helplessly, “If only I could escape this place without seeing a single one of these wretches! To see my lack of manliness face to face! Couldn’t she have taken them to the burning-ground along with her?”

Nair’s face darkened. He asked in a tone angry yet placating, “Are these not children born of your wife’s womb?”

“If you knew what marriage is – if you knew of its chains which grow tighter and tighter even as people watch and you remain oblivious – you wouldn’t ask this. The lover who suffers betrayal in love receives the world’s sympathy and affection. But does not the world shower derisive laughter, does it not spit on the face of the husband who gave away his wife to another man?”

Nair was silent. He saw that his desire to maintain Vimala’s good name was also Menon’s undeniable need. He saw that his side was stronger. Taking heart, he spoke up, “Let no one in the world know. I am telling you, who has the right to know. Vimala gave her life to my son before she left us all.” But then he suddenly broke down, and exclaimed in a tone of despair, “How sad! We had vowed not to degrade our love thus. Yet it all fell apart in a weak moment. Poor Vimala! Not many have been like her, outwardly in heaven and inwardly in hell!”

Menon had nearly gone mad earlier at the sight of this man’s love for his wife. Now, however, he felt relieved. He even felt that it was the knowledge of a father’s burden that had made the loss appear so unbearable to him. A burden that he would have had to carry without a partner! Light of heart now, Menon said, “That girl, meek as a doe, what crazy things she made you do?”

“Me? Have you lost your mind? The man who acted crazy towards that woman gentle as a doe …”

“I admit to all that …” Menon stood up and put his hand on Nair’s shoulder like a friend about to cut a deal with another. “Therefore, let us split the burden she left behind. The children’s expenses will be mine, the burden of raising them, yours. Both of us are concerned that people should not laugh at Vimala’s memory. Love makes you feel so; honour makes me feel the same. So this is going to be strictly between us. I also do not intend to come here again ever.”

As he turned away to change his clothes, Menon said, “You can go now, I am leaving right now. You heard me? I will send you the money for the children – including this baby. Your only burden is to be with them and raise them, even if you marry …”

Ramakrishnan Nair too turned to leave, saying “Don’t even think of it. When Vimala was alive, I did not marry for her sake. And now, for her children’s sake. That was her last wish.”

“Surely Vimala advised you to avoid becoming a husband – that compels you to leave your honour in  the hands of a woman – and it is useless, however much one may control oneself  – definitely, she loved you.” And then, with the easy vitality of an unmarried man with no commitments, he observed, “You also have no chance of falling into a trap to satisfy your parents! Being an orphan could be a great relief, if you think that way!”

 

(Bhartrtvam, 1946)

 

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