“My folks are making a fuss. About getting married.”
He said that brusquely, irritated by her distraction.
“I am not deaf,” she bantered merrily, “Are you sore that I am not adding my bit to the family’s pushing?”
“I give up. What else to do with people who jest so?” His tone lost the harshness and took on a hint of complaint. “Laugh all you want. You won’t be able to laugh with me like this for very long.”
“Won’t be able to laugh like this with you? What to do in that case but give up? Okay, I’ll find someone else to look on while I laugh!”
She was holding an infant in her arms. She now gently tossed it up and down a few times, catching it as it came down. The little one broke into peals of delighted laughter. She kissed the baby all over its rosy round body. Looking on, he asked resentfully, “Yes, yes, isn’t it alright to borrow somebody else’s baby forever and have fun?”
She held the infant close and gazed at him unblinkingly. “If our families don’t agree, won’t it be hell for us both?”
“No, it will be heaven sans biting ants– a katturumbu-less paradise.”* He began to feel glad now that she was coming round to a discussion. “We’ll live happily together!”
“And to eat? Fine beach sand?”
“First-rate rice and sweetmeats!”
“The money for that? Which fool is going to be our perpetual creditor?”
“What for? Don’t I get a salary?”
Her bright face dimmed a little. “You got a job?”
“Yes, didn’t Chechi tell you?”
“No.” She was silent for a few moments. “Who’s the girl your family’s chosen?”
“A tehsildar’s daughter. In college now. A beauty, they say. Pressure from Chechi.”
“You didn’t see her?”
“Why should I go around looking at random girls?”
The infant’s fair cheeks turned pink with her kisses. She mused, “Tehsildar’s daughter … you’ll get a promotion easily with her…”
That too didn’t faze him. “Why should I seek promotions that kill one’s joy?”
She fell silent, as if immersed in thought. Seeing her frown, the infant began to squirm and cry. An eight-year-old boy appeared, hearing it wail. “Chechi, Amma said to take Mani to her,” he said, and took the baby away. The little one threw her a sad glance from her brother’s shoulder. She followed them with her eyes till they disappeared in the distance. He noticed, and asked: “Why are you looking on so greedily? When you have one of your own …”
“It is not enough to play with it while it smiles! Also must be picked up and comforted when it bawls!”
“I am not going to argue. Say something soon, I have to go!”
“Not coming to my house?”
“No. The happy tidings I was bringing to offer to your mother …”
“ … have been dashed to the ground by the daughter, right?”
He threw her a furious look.
She said, “Even if the daughter doesn’t it dash it down, someone else will – who knows, maybe you will, yourself? Is there any guarantee? Also, this sacred offering of today, what if it looks like crap some time later?”
Seeing that her question had hurt him, she smiled again and asked, “Why are you so keen to reach the state of the unluckiest person in the world?”
“To me, it is the biggest stroke of luck in the world.”
“Don’t trust that thought. In the end …”
“I’ve no interest in Vedanta,” he was impatient now. ”I am here on leave from work just to ask you this question. Till now your excuse was that I had no job. What do you aim to say now?”
“When do you have to return?” She asked, as if disarmed now.
“By tomorrow evening, the latest. Will the higher-ups like it if newcomers start going on leave so soon?”
The shadows grew longer. The sun sank below the trees and began to disappear. She sighed, then smiled, and said, “Oh, it’s so late – no time for a bath even. Come to these steps this time tomorrow? I’ll tell you all I have to say.”
She turned to walk towards the steps by the river. He caught her arm. Her carelessly-tied tresses fell loose on his arm. He kissed ardently those abundant curls and the petite palm that lay so snugly in his hands and said:
“On those words my happiness rests.”
When she regained the power to speak, she said, “Let me go. Any more delay, and it will be very dark when I return from my dip.”
He released her, reluctantly.
She was sleepless that night. She thought hard about his future. His happy state of mind had made him loath to think hard about family matters. And therefore, about the future of this relationship. That sweetness would fade in time. And even if it did not, was it right for her to drag into indigence someone who thirsted to embrace life’s pleasures? Love’s gift is but the ability to let go! Love’s majesty is sustained not when one reaches out to pleasure, but when one sacrifices it. A mother who did not know how to live a single day in her life properly despite having lived so long in the world; a half-crazed, ill, older brother! She, who had to take the burden of those heavy responsibilities on her shoulders, could she allow another person, one who looked forward to the pleasures and ease of life, to take a share of those? Is not that dried-up but active role greater than honeyed love ….
He was there on time, by the bathing-ghat near the river, the next day. What her answer would be, he was now fairly certain about.
She came up after her bath, her abundant hair flowing, clothes softly wet, the blush of a fresh lotus blossom on her face, like Ganga in human form. The intoxication of last evening’s touch had not left him; he approached her, inflamed. Stepping back briskly, she commanded: “Step back! Don’t you know that you can’t touch a woman who’s not yours?”
Her tone and expression left him numb. In a voice choked more with anger than surprise, he asked, “Am I a man who can’t recognise a woman who isn’t mine?” And soon he sounded pathetic. “Why do you hurt me so?”
“Please do take some time to judge whether I am trying to hurt or heal. Should I drown another’s life in sorrow? I have no objection if you are keen to become the husband of a girl stricken with consumption! But I intend to let your family know. I don’t want to be blamed in the end.”
His legs were not strong enough the take the blow of that revelation. He collapsed on his knees to the ground and asked her, nearly gasping: “Is this true? Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Oh, really! Will anyone go around announcing their illness? This is a blessing that runs in my family … my senior aunt, her daughter, her son …”
“I am going,” he scrambled up, looking like someone whose fever had just abated and walked away haltingly. “My fate is terrible indeed.”
He returned there only after three whole years. They met again at the same bathing-ghat by the river. She held out her hands to the eighteen-month-old infant he was carrying and took it in her arms. Casting a searching eye on its dusky curls, fair, rosy body, and pretty dimpled cheeks, she asked him, “Does the father of this baby think that his fate is terrible?”
He, who had been surveying her from head to toe, replied, “Three whole years and your body has not wasted even a bit! How?”
“It had no reason to waste!”
“What?” He could make no sense. “Was it all a lie?”
She kept making a fuss of the baby, kissing it, and did not reply. He persisted, a bit more seriously. “Why did you lie like that then?”
“Selfishness, really, pure selfishness!” She smiled as she spoke. “If your family disapproved and I still entered your house, what pleasure could I expect? So I played that trick to escape!” The glow of satisfaction lit up her face.” And besides, my child wouldn’t be as cute, and it wouldn’t have so many jewels!”
Overwhelmed with wonder and respect, he gazed at her quietly. “People like you are the true inheritors of heaven”, he said at last.
She met it with a burst of laughter: “Oh, so you were promoted to be Chitraguptan? Keeping accounts for the God of Death?”
He was still silent. After some time he asked her, “aren’t you coming to my house?”
“And why not?” She chirped. “Shouldn’t I hand over the baby to its mother? And mustn’t I catch a glimpse of that great beauty?”
He had not expected that reply. The prospect of a meeting between his former love and his wife troubled him a little, but he was reluctant to reveal his unease.
They turned, she ahead, he following. As they walked, he said, “Hard to fathom your kind. Why do you people utter such terrible lies? How?”
Maybe the baby’s fingers brushed her eyes, they began to water. She took up the edge of her mundu and wiped them. Without turning to face him, she said, “Didn’t I tell you right at the beginning that I am terribly selfish? People play many tricks to secure their own interests, and as much as they can.”
*A reference to the common description of someone whose presence interrupts the happiness of others as swargathile katturumbu – ‘the (biting) black ant that spoils the bliss of heaven’.