That was a short trip from Kottayam to Thiruvananthapuram. Still, Vilasini was scared to travel alone. However, it is shabby to show one’s fear and nervousness, isn’t it? She wasn’t just a schoolgirl anymore, for sure. Two whole years had passed since she’d got into a women’s college as a fully grown woman. And now, was about to join the Honours class.
It wasn’t just eloquence or erudition that had fetched her the first prize for her speech on women’s liberty at the Women’s College Annual Day elocution competition. The deep sincerity, the zeal — that made her a winner. The slavery that women had to endure would come to a natural end if women became free economically, she had declared. Why do men try, in so many different ways, to place hurdles in that path, she had wondered. Is it not a fact, she had asked, that a load is a load even if what one had to carry on one’s head was a load of sweetmeats? She was able to establish that not just the advancement of women as a community, but that of the human race itself, required that women should step out alongside men into the world of action, for its progress.
But even though she had blazed brilliantly with these words in her speech, Vilasini did feel rather bad when she saw women push and shove with men trying to get on buses. How low those women are? Can’t they wait till the rush was over?
Vilasini’s father hauled her trunk and other things up on the luggage-carrier of the bus, seated her in the reserved seat, and took leave.
She picked up a half-read English thriller and began to read. A good-looking young man who had booked the other half of that two-seater row arrived soon carrying a bag in one hand and a tiffin-box in the other. When the bus began to move, he too was lost in his newspaper.
When the bus reached Changanashery junction, Vilasini closed the book and looked around. Her eyes fell on the face of the person sitting near to her. She glanced at him absently and returned to her thriller. He had been eyeing her too; he now turned awkward suddenly and asked, “Don’t you want to read the paper?”
He held it out to her. Vilasini saw nothing wrong in taking it. “Are you going to Thiruvananthapuram?” he asked.
“To join college?”
“Me too. I am joining the Law College. I want to be a lawyer. That’s a free life.” He smiled and continued somewhat beseechingly. “My name is S. Balagopalan. Will be obliged if you remember it! I am thinking of contesting the University Union elections as a candidate for the President post. Isn’t it foolish to not use a chance to canvass a vote when it comes so early?”
Noting that Vilasini’s eyes were glued to the paper and feeling that whatever had to be said was now said, he fell silent. But after some time he asked: “Can you please let me have the book you were reading?”
Vilasini let him have the six-anna-novel.
Her reading was interrupted at Tiruvalla. Hearing a shrill female voice in the seat behind her, she turned – and saw a fat woman carrying an infant nearly a year old with a lean, middle-aged man. The infant stretched out its hand and tried to grab Vilasini’s dangling earrings. She gave up reading.
Handing the newspaper back to its owner, Vilasini turned to pick the child up. The naughty little one smiled showing all four tiny teeth, but shrank back into its mother’s shoulder. Vilasini was piqued, like an invited guest who found out that there was no dinner. The woman noticed it and said: “Don’t be irritated by this fickle girl! Won’t you have a sweet little baby in your arms by this time next year? And it won’t be surely not like this one, black as a crow?”
The woman eyed Vilasini’s co-passenger and smiled meaningfully.
Vilasini felt faint. She’d never dreamt that such a misunderstanding could occur to anyone. Balagopalan’s face was motionless; that made Vilasini think that he hadn’t heard the woman’s comment, and she felt relieved for it.
Not wise to converse with anyone, she decided. She felt too jittery to ask for the book that was now with Balagopalan and therefore all she could do was stare at the road and get the dust in her eyes.
While taking the newspaper from Balagopalan, the woman’s husband asked: “Where are you going?”
“To Thiruvananthapuram.” Though it wasn’t clear whether the ‘you’ in his statement was in the singular or the plural, Balagopalan managed a tolerably correct answer.
“To join college.”
“The new-fangled things these days!” The man turned to his wife in a rather displeased voice. “Even after children and their children appear, to keep on studying together!”
“What’s wrong with that?” His wife objected. “It’s the women old enough to have produced ten or fifteen kids who still march up and down the roads by themselves sweeping the dust off the ground who are irritating. Look into their ill-starred faces, and the water gets stuck in your throat! This is so auspicious to see! What a good match! If you’re a woman, you must live under a man’s word and watch. Only a woman who is held up by a man is blessed.”
Vilasini could only listen helplessly. She pulled closer the sari-end and the strands of her hair that flew against Balagopalan’s body as the vehicle went faster still. That blabbermouth of a woman interpreted it as the coyness of the new bride, and said, “What a fuss! Really, so coy – not good, even in a new bride! And even in the educated-worldly sort!”
Vilasini went all sweaty and weak. Balagopalan flipped through the book. Handing it back to her, he said: “Women seem to like women authors more. Not that I don’t like Agatha Christie. Sometimes she tells a better tale than men.”
“I am very fond of detective stories,” said Vilasini slowly, without raising her head. “When will we have women who write like this here? Leave alone the fact that the favourable circumstances are simply absent. But to think of it again, maybe that’s a good thing! Won’t one have to live in fear day and night? I have never been so scared as when I read H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man. What can’t a male who’s also invisible do?”
Sensing the fear in her voice, Balagopalan glanced at her and smiled. Suddenly he noticed that the baby in the seat behind was pulling at her hair. He turned around and looked at the mother sharply as if to ask why she was not stopping the baby. The mother pulled its hand back and said roughly: “Hey, stop that, girl! Why keep sticking to folks when it’s clear that they don’t like it?”
That struck at Vilasini’s kind heart. She inclined her head and said smilingly, “Your daughter doesn’t like us folks, and you blame me for that? Where are you going with this little one?”
“Oh, no, no, don’t worry,” the instantly-pleased woman replied, “We won’t bother you for the rest of the journey. Going to Kollam – someone dear has died. Do you know how long we’ve been getting ready for this? This is the trouble having kids! You are so comfy now! Isn’t it paradise itself?” Noticing Vilasini’s expression change, she shifted to a conciliatory tone: “Why look so irked when I tease you just out of pure happiness? The first few days will be just so. After that who’ll care? Who’ll notice?”
Vilasini had enough of talking with her. What if I shift seat when the bus stops next, she mulled. But that would make the woman go off again about bride-like coyness, and make more of a mess. Her tongue was too tied to offer an explanation within Balagopalan’s earshot. And it looked as though the woman’s belief was rather firmly entrenched. But she decided that when they reached Kottarakkara, she would take her aside, explain things, and end the teasing. If not, at this rate, what wouldn’t she say!
But when the bus stopped at Kottarakkara, the woman got off with her husband and returned only at the last minute, just before the bus started again. Vilasini looked around desperately, trying to find her. She forgot to get herself a snack though the tea-shop was right in front of her.
So hungry she was that soon, she began to feel nauseous. Leaning out of the window, she spat out a few times. The woman now waxed merry: “So, things are this far now! And she was pretending to be so coy! Bright one! Aha! Women these days are so wily!”
Weighed down with hunger and insult, Vilasini felt angry enough to finish her off. She tried to throw a sharp look at her. The woman suppressed her laugh and acted wounded, saying: “Oh why look at me like that? What did I do? A mere boy, but smart he is! But why tear at me for that? Didn’t God give me a tongue to speak of what I see? So your studies are going to be disrupted by the middle of the year? Your labour will be during the exams!”
Vilasini gritted her teeth as she said, “I am feeling nauseous because I am hungry.”
“Aha, indeed,” the woman smiled naughtily. “How long can you lie, child? Look! Isn’t she all riled up! A woman ought to learn how to suffer without anyone else knowing of it, if she’s to be a real woman!”
Balagopalan pretended to have heard nothing. He took out a couple of oranges from his bag and held them to her. “Try this. The queasy feeling will subside. Some people have bodies that can’t tolerate bus travel.”
Vilasini was reluctant to take them. But fearing what the woman might spew something more if she didn’t, she quickly took them. But even then the woman had some things to say. “See, this is why I say that there should be a man around. A woman’s intellect is but cheap clay! Only a man can plan ahead wisely. But when it comes to the other thing, child, they can only watch – they can’t make it go away!”
Vilasini saw that silence was the best response. She also realized that Balagopalan was wisely pretending to be deaf.
She gave the infant half of her orange. It was not fair to blame her, she thought too – after all, she was only making guesses appropriate to local ways. She is of the view that women should not step out without male support – she represented women of the present. In that case, a man and woman sharing a seat and talking during a journey have to be related closely! She spied in Vilasini’s controlled manner a new bride’s coyness – and in Balagopalan’s eagerness to canvass for a vote, a new bridegroom’s tactfulness.
As she chewed on the orange, Vilasini thought of many things. Why does she believe so firmly that the friendliness of fellow-passengers can be nothing other than an intimate relationship? Because the woman, who steps out so infrequently has no need to travel by herself – because unfreedom is considered the mark of good breeding and honour. Should not such views, which lead to pain and trouble for more than half of the human race, be simply removed? Woman’s unfreedom, to start with, is the need of the woman who is weak; then, a custom that society insists upon; and finally it becomes a duty that tradition enjoins. Why don’t women join one another to remove it altogether, overcoming hurdles, and taking on the ridicule? Is it proper that even those who favour ending all forms of slavery wish to perpetuate this bondage, irrespective of whether it is because of male selfishness or the chivalry of the cultured man?
These thoughts gave Vilasini a headache. She pressed her fingers to her temples and bowed her head down. The woman who had given her the headache now raised her chin and said: “Alright then – when we meet next, we’ll see, in the place where the book is now, there will be something else playing with its arms and legs! Poor thing, lovely girl! I am leaving!”
As she left leaving behind that good-conduct certificate, Vilasini spat out: “Ignoramus! And an ancient one! If there’s just one of her kind left in the land, things won’t improve for sure!”
“Yes,” agreed Balagopalan, mindful of the vote to be earned three or four months later. “Brainless types! Idiots who don’t know that the ways are changing! Why is everything that is rejected first, accepted later? Why didn’t you ask her about why she wasn’t going about with her hair piled high on her head, with the heavy old-style ear-studs on elongated earlobes, and the ancient mulakaccha and rouka blouse, like the women of old? The very future of humanity lies in the hands of eminent women like you who desire progress!”
Vilasini could not but sigh, despairing as she thought: when slavishness lay admixed in the very blood as a grand sense of duty, of what use were speeches?