The Perfect Wife: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika

 

Divakaran Nair had started meeting prospective brides in their home from the age of twenty. He had unshakable ideas about how his bride should look.  Fourteen years of age; complexion that rivalled the gleam of a pure gold sovereign; thick curly black knee-length tresses; eyes that never rose above ground level; a face that attracted others even when cast down modestly; no taller than five feet and a half; slender, well-shaped form. He did not believe that an unlettered woman was unworthy of wifely status.  How proud would a husband feel when he, during his hours of leisure, drew a young girl, untouched by knowledge of the world, close to him, and poured his knowledge and culture into her? What ecstasy would that be!

Even when he changed from a handsome youth to a middle-aged man with some strands of grey hair, Divakaran Nair’s views did not change. In his eyes, a virgin above the age of fifteen was a shrivelled old hag. If her complexion failed to be of the sort that wasn’t distinguishable from the soft flow of the gold ornaments that adorned her, then, in his eyes, she would be black as a crow. And it was his belief that the chastity of any girl who had passed beyond the fourth form was suspect.

While in college, Divakaran Nair used to wonder about the mindset of his classmates who were always running after girls seeking their affection. Personally, he thought that they deserved even more contempt and disrespect than prostitutes. What did they mean, gadding about on the streets outside the protective shade of a male body beside them — that was his question. Does not the unique attraction of the female body depend mainly on its concealment?

One day, it chanced that Divakaran Nair’s bicycle knocked down a maiden who was studying in the Intermediate Class.  She, he, and bicycle, all three tumbled down on the ground. But instead of asking forgiveness of that girl who sat up from where she fell and was now struggling to raise her rotund body, he said to her, “My dear sister, whatever, you shouldn’t have done this in the middle of the day, in the middle of the road! If you had let me know, I would have come over to your house last night. I am not so lacking in chivalry, you know?”

“Oh, that is the profession your sisters have adopted, is it?” snapped the girl, then collected her books and left. Watching her stride off, Nair told himself, “This too is female, apparently! A eunuch for sure, shameless enough to look directly at a man’s face, entirely unaware of feminine modesty!”

His friend Ramakkurup got married around that time. From the moment he heard that the bride was studying for the LT diploma, Divakaran Nair had tried to talk him out of it.  “Look,” he said, “if the wife is not a woman who does believes, like Seetha Devi and Sheelavati, that the husband is truly her God, then what merit will such conjugal life have? Do you believe that your wife will take every word of yours to be Divine Revelation? She will cite three hundred instances from Europe, America, and Russia and refute you! How awful! How will you bear it! In any case, in front of that all-knowing woman, you will not be able to imagine, even for a minute,  that magical being  of a wife capable of opening up a sweet new world! In contrast, when your wife is a little girl – coy, shy, and blessed with her ignorance, and she stands all wan and weak before you at your very first touch – how immensely pleasurable would that be! God help you, you are giving up that immeasurable joy!  How will you see anything adorable in the woman who has the self-confidence to appear unabashedly before your male friends? Such togetherness will make you sick of life. Therefore …”

When Divakaran Nair reached this point, Ramakkurup pulled open the drawer, took out the wedding invitations, and started writing addresses.

Though everyone in the lodging including the servant-boy went to the wedding, Divakaran Nair kept away. In the unbroken silence of that night, he saw his dream-bride more clearly than ever. When he got up as usual, lit the stove, made some bed-coffee, left it on a teapoy next to the bed, and went right back to bed with a blanket over him, he dreamt of conjugal mornings that would dawn after his wedding. The ridiculous practice of making one’s own bed-coffee and leaving it near the bed for a while before drinking it would not be necessary then. Will not he then wake up to the music of jingling bangles after nights bright with happy talk, take in the auspicious sight of a gently-smiling, demure face, accept coffee from a rosy little hand, and lie back in the bed still warm from her flower-soft body, sipping the coffee like ambrosia?

Divakaran Nair did not think that his imagined beloved was a figment of the imagination. On many nights in which his friends were wandering hither and thither seeking pleasures, he would lie in his bed and conjure up the perfect domestic life. He preserved his virginity, in a way uncommon among menfolk, to present it to that perfect fourteen-year-old wife. On most nights, he drifted off to sleep seeing in his heart the picture of him smoothing some of the curly black locks from the forehead of the bashful girl with downcast eyes, and gazing enraptured at her beautiful young face.

He began to take an active interest in the things that women needed. Whenever he saw new jewellery fashions, he would copy the designs in his diary and note the manufacturer’s name; that was nearly a habit. He had even decided what styles to choose for his wife from the very many blouse-fashions of that time.

Once, early in his quest, he had found a young virgin who fitted his dreams – in every way. He had come home for the Christmas holidays and chanced to see Kalyanikkutty at the gate of the Malayalam middle school. So overcome was he with joy, he could hardly move. He learned that her father was a low-level official and that she was the oldest in his rather big brood, but that did not put him off. What qualification does a woman need beyond the riches of beauty and the adornment of modesty?

The day he went to her house for the formal bride-viewing or pennukaanal, her family received him as though he were a prince. Her father led her from beside her mother who was busy making vows of tempting offerings to sundry gods scattered in many places. That was the first time her body was placed before someone as an object to be chosen.  Kalyani was more curious than shy. So she placed the tray of snacks on the table in front of him and raised her head very slowly to take a brief look at him. To Divakaran Nair who had been lost in joy gazing at her, that was like a stunning blow. If at the age of fourteen this girl could look at a stranger in the face thus, can one expect any pleasure from conjugal existence with her? Not bothering to even touch the plate of goodies she had brought, he strode out. When he heard, after a month, that a peon in the local Munsif Court, a chap with a bad leg, had wed her, an unwilled sigh did escape him. Not that he regretted his decision. He was just remembering how she had dared to raise her eyes so shamelessly …

This way, because he was so busy looking up many, many fourteen-, eighteen-, twenty-, and twenty-eight year-olds, Divakaran Nair did not notice the years fly. But in the end, standing in front of the mirror to touch himself up, he began to feel a certain reticence instead of the usual pride in his good looks. Earlier he needed but half an hour or so to arrange his hair; now even an hour did not suffice since he had to search for and eradicate the grey. Somebody told him that the ache in the leg from cycling somewhat more than usual was a sign of ageing. He wasn’t as keen as he used to be to wake early and make his bed-coffee, though loath to give up that practice. Sometimes his body which youth was gradually abandoning asked his mind, “How much longer is this going to take?” But probably because he was still young at heart, his inner eyes still spied the charming face of his bride in the midst of thousands of women.

And thus were things when he received a letter from Pankajakshi Amma. The letter filled his heart with a sense of fulfilment. “Chetta, please come home immediately,” she wrote, “I have found a bride for you. Her name is Kamala. You should meet her parents and take her with you.”

Looking at the well-shaped handwriting, he felt a deep sense of gratitude admixed with sympathy for the writer of the letter who was so keen on ensuring his well-being. He felt certain that this Kamalam was indeed the perfect bride.

Pankajaksi was his cousin, his father’s sister’s daughter.  Since she was his prospective bride according to custom, he was asked, and he had replied thus: “I am fond of Panku, the poor thing! But liking someone and making her your wife are two different things. How to love this dark-skinned fatty as a wife?” The words he uttered that day had reached her too. But she too believed in her own disqualification and so his sarcasm which sounded fair, did not affect her; their friendship continued unbroken.  She went on to complete school and marry an ayurvedic physician, who however passed away early in life. Thinking of her children, she secured a job in a school nearby. Divakaran Nair who was busy saving up for his future love-filled married life did help her now and then with minor amounts.

He had offered her help with no expectation of repayment. But it was Pankajakshi Amma who was now going to help him attain the desired object that he had pursued with such passion, undeterred by the frittering away of the most precious fifteen years of his life.

The very sight of Kamalam made him feel that the very purpose of his birth had finally borne fruit. He saw the bride of his dreams stand before him without a single detail out of place. He wanted to take in his arms — that little body – and lead it out that very moment. When she disappeared from sight, he forgot even the coffee and sat there, chin in palm, lost in his dreams.

The head of the house, however, mistook this pinnacle of contentment for the very opposite. He attempted to mollify the prospective groom, saying, “Don’t feel worried that the girl is so thin. You should have seen her mother when I married her! A mere coconut-palm frond, barely that! This one is just like her. Those who saw the mother back then might not be able recognise this one. They won’t recognise the mother either. Now she is so big, you can’t hold her in your arms; if she sits on the floor she has to heave herself up with both hands pressed to the floor. As for her colour, now she looks like a nice ripe irimbichi lime! So don’t worry about her looks. Feed her well and she’ll swell up in a couple of days,” he laughed aloud. “If you replace the doors in the house early enough, all the better!”

Craning forward to peer deep into the interiors of the house, the girl’s father sought his wife’s approval for such eloquence. Divakaran Nair who was drawing up the itinerary for the honeymoon, did not hear a word and was spared his hideous aesthetic sensibility.

Once the daughter returned to the kitchen after displaying her body to the visitor, the mother made her way to the front room to take a look at the candidate. She was carrying in her arms the youngest and nursing her as she hid behind the door to peek through the front-door. She recognised him instantly — the man who had first aroused the hope for marriage in her maiden heart.  The years had turned her into a sharp-tongued woman; she shouted in surprise: “Ayyayyo! After all these years? Look who’s come visiting! So this is the man! Good, good, so you are still going about looking up girls and drinking coffee? Meanwhile, I have become the mother of eight, an old hag!”

Divakaran Nair jumped up in fright and stared at the mountain in front of him. Turning to her husband who looked completely stricken by her words, she said, “We don’t want this alliance even if he pours gold down here. Chhe! Chhe! How disgraceful! The fellow who considered marrying the mother is now seeking the daughter! Is anyone going to give him their daughter in marriage? If that Pankajakshy Amma had told us that this is his profession, would I have agreed to this shameful affair?  Anyway, what you have seen is all well, please walk away like you did before. My children here will drink up this coffee. Indeed! In times like these when you can’t even get any sugar or milk!”

Head bowed, silent, Nair stepped out of the house. He himself was unable to decipher what had hurt his heart more, Kalyanikkutty Amma’s harsh words, or the transformation of her form.

All the emotions centred on an ideal bride, suppressed till then, were aroused uncontrollably that day. The mind may be content with imagined pleasures. But what about the body?

The next morning, when Divakaran Nair accepted the coffee from Pankajakshy Amma’s toil-scarred hands, he had made a new connection with her. Outside, her children were playing noisy games. He could now see all his cherished ideals of the perfect wife dissolve into the dark, plump body of the school teacher who had nothing new to learn from him.

 

[Ellaam Tinkanjha Bharya]

 

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