Bookish Love: K Saraswathi Amma

Passing the Bachelor’s degree in English with first-class marks from the college in Changanasherry landed me in a proper soup. My extreme commitment to textbooks granted me the ability to swallow all of it by heart, and this dragged towards me the Goddess of Victory and Prosperity, who however indulged in pranks worthy of a total imp. Thus I set out to study for an MA degree in English in the capital city with my father’s help and the blessings of the Catholic priests who had taught me.

I didn’t stay in a hostel in Thiruvananthapuram. Neither my father nor I wanted anything to do with the new-fangled fellows, also irredeemable spendthrifts, there. We were mortally scared of them. So I stayed in a small single-room house away from the centre of the town, in the corner of a large yard near the road. Father arranged for meals from a local hotel and went back home.

When he came to visit a week later and was about to return, he told me, “Listen son, do you know who the big house at the other end of this yard belongs to? Raman Pillai Peshkar. Don’t think he’s a nobody just because he is retired. Ah– how influential he is! And he’s from our place.” He lowered his voice and continued, “He has a daughter, Indira. Indeed, in looks too, she is Indira, the Goddess of Prosperity! Studies in the English-medium school. If you are able to shift in there, they will take great care of you. You won’t have to bother about fees or meals.”

I don’t remember the words I crafted my reply with.  When I revealed my plans to stay wifeless and weightless, he seemed most pleased. He was quite relieved that my aversion to marriage would deliver me from the women of Thiruvananthapuram who are well-versed in all the eighteen arts of seduction and snaring aimed at the rich young men who visit.

Saved from the destructive company of friends in the new city, I devoted myself to reading books all the time. I read mostly romances. In time, my love for books swelled so much that it stirred the desire for the joy of practice. Both my love for books, and the love for love that bloomed in me from all that reading grew rather excessively. My situation became quite like that of the famous hero Don Quixote. The desire to fall in love sprouted from my heart with such force that it grew sky-high.  I feared that the skin of my heart would start coming apart when the fruit of love matured to fullness, splitting and peeling like ripe fruit. But I could not find a divine damsel who would be worthy of it.

Right opposite my residence stood a small six-pole hovel.  Cement or lime had not graced it the least; it was made of cow dung and mud with mats for walls and door. Attached to it was a tiny ladies’ vegetable shop run by an old crone who was its owner, manager, sales person and so on. It became my habit to sit looking that way whenever I was tired of reading.

I was not attracted by that sour-faced old woman. However, those eyes which were ever-filled with rage towards the whole world softened at times, I noticed, and were replaced with a moist loving expression, and her voice too took on a loving tone, when she called out to someone: “Vasini!” At those moments, my eyes and ears went on high alert. But it was of no use. The monstrous-looking old woman’s lovely young granddaughter – I craved to see her golden body befitting a celestial temptress, to hear her voice that rivalled those of divine singers. Though invisible and unheard, my bookish love was sated by the fact that she became available, in the imagination, for my loving submission. But the early fervour that was quite unprovoked grew all the more intense as I tried to make my Goddess of Love, that Rose Upon the Rock, appear before me. At moments, I did indeed think, since she was that old woman’s offspring, is it not more likely that she was monkey-faced and donkey-voiced? But what use? My love was far beyond the boundaries of rational thinking and the desiccated norms of society. Youth, after all, is the season of folly and thoughtless adventure.

As days passed, my heart came to be filled with undesirable pangs. I did not even touch my textbooks any more. My teachers were surprised by my lack of concentration and diligence. Gradually, I lost interest in food. I began to resemble those who had sundered their bodies in two in their thirst for love. When Father visited again, he ran his hands on my body and berated the hotel owner. Father could have easily won the top medal in the scolding-literature competition. Since I was well-aware that if he had even an inkling of the true reason for my weight loss, he would pounce on even Vasini’s aged grandmother and shower her with the choicest blossoms of swear-words from top to toe, I desisted from revealing anything at all. When he asked me about my studies, I clapped my hands around the eyes of my conscience and bravely lied, “Will surely pass with a first-class, Father.”

I dearly wished to unburden myself to someone. But won’t even mere donkeys decide that I deserved to be sent to the Oolanpara mental hospital for pining away for a beggar-maid neither seen nor heard? Eagerness and frustration split my heart in two. Unable to bear it, one day, I made some vague hints to a classmate. He, I don’t know why,laughed for quite some time, and then said, “If that is the problem, let me recommend a psychological cure. Keep chanting ‘love, love’ a hundred thousand times every day. Better still, write it over and over again in a good, clear hand.”

Who won’t behave like a donkey when in love? I answered him seriously, in a piteous voice, “Yes, yes, if you write ‘palpayasam, palpayasam’ over and over again on good quality paper, will that help your stomach?” His answer was a derisive guffaw.  After this I sought neither sympathy nor pacifying words. Though things went on thus for four whole weeks, my patience was not exhausted. One evening on a Saturday, I was looking out of my window, with my right hand on the window-bar and the left holding a book seeking a glimpse of my beloved.  The road was rather empty that day. On the roof of the hovel opposite, a crow sat combing the head of another crow with its beak. The sky was as blue-y blue as Sabarimala in the season of the Makaravilakku. The old woman was quarrelling with a girl who had come to buy some vegetables.  Suddenly something hit my foot and I looked down. A really pretty cat – with a lovely white downy body, shining green eyes. I put the book on the table and picked it up. I had some biscuits lying around.So I fed it with. I have always been fond of animals and so I examined it with pleasure. Suddenly I heard the call, “Vaaasiniii!” I turned sharply towards the six-pillared-mansion as though seized there by a harpoon. I peered that side. The old woman’s piercing eyes fell on me. “Hey, what’s up thes’ days, all lookin’ peerin’ into thi’ place all th’ time?Yer bisness, is yerbisness, mind yeh! Don’ mess wit’ thi’ oldste’!” And so she continued leaping up at me. Denied the vision of my chosen Goddess, and soaked in the old hag’s foul words! Satisfied with what I had achieved for that day, I settled back into my chair only to notice that the feline temptress had eaten up and left. That night,despite all efforts, my eyes refused to shut.  When the whole world slumbered thus under the influence of the Goddess of Rest, why not jump over the fence and get for myself a glimpse of the Tender Vine nursed by the old woman, I thought. But what would be my fate if it became generally known that my aversion to marriage had culminated in a midnight meeting with the vegetable-seller-woman’s wench? ‘If Life doth not adorn this vine of love with flowers fair, I will, in death, make a garland from them’: I took heart, stayed that risky deed, and passed the night. Two or three more days went by. The next day when I about to leave for college, I saw the old woman wailing and weeping loudly. My great love for Vasini made me forget her uncalled-for verbal assault and I turned willing to speak with her.  “Why do you weep?” I called out. She looked around and in the end, told me in a pained voice, “Ayyo, at leas’ you fel’ sorry for me, chil’! Don’ ‘ave even a ha’dful of rice in ‘ere, or a singl’ pie. Thi’ old woma’s cry ‘cause Vasini’ll starv’ a’ day t’day!”

No sooner had I heard her than had I thrown her a half-rupee. “Take this now. Whenever you need anything for Vasini, let me know,” said I, and stepped out. My second statement was producing an undesirable reaction on the old woman’s face. I also heard her mutter, “Oh yea’, jus’ ‘cause she’s starvi’ sh won’ run away with som’ silv’r-rupee dandy,” and other such things. But noticing that they were not so pleasing to the ear, and joyful at the thought of the prospective access to the heights of heavenly pleasure opened up by that act of charity, I walked on briskly.

That evening when I returned I wanted to ask her if she had fed Vasini well with my half-rupee. But since the memory of that gift of words which was bestowed on me by her a couple of times now were still quite alive in my memory, I resisted the urge to ask.

Things took a turn for the worse the next day. The old woman wailed even more piteously. “What happened today?” – The power of my love gave me the courage to yell out to her.  That completely cured the hag’s doleful state.  “Wha’! Wha’ indee’! The coi’ you gave yes’day wa’ pois’ned wi’ magic! My Vasini’s never bee’ sick ev’r! An’ wha’ your rupee did! She”— The old woman broke into tears. “The hump was bad enough, and now a sore on it, oh God!” I mourned as I fell on my bed.

I ate nothing that day. Didn’t go to college either. By evening I had decided that I would weather the old woman’s unbearable swearing calmly for Vasini’s sake. I came out determined to step into that hovel. At that precise moment, the Peshkar-Sir appeared right before me, asking why I had not gone to college. Crying out to God silently why all Peshkars and all colleges were not thrust deep into the earth with a single earthquake, I greeted my father’s friend. I told him but about my headache arisen from heartache. And not about the pain or the soul gnawing at my insides each moment. By the time many useless topics had been covered and he was ready to leave with the promise that he would send broken-rice gruel for my supper, it was past eight.  Thinking that it was unwise to enter the home of a stray wench whose grandmother considered me to be the worst of ill-omens, and remembering that the latter’s extraordinary ability to wail, moan, and scold meant huge risk to my good name, I lay quietly. I didn’t even touch the gruel that the servant had brought.

Tossing about between the terrible fire of Love and the hideous flames of Hunger, I was soon roused rudely from a nightmare-filled terrible slumber with a loud scream. I scrambled up in terror. “Vasini, have you left me all alone?” The old woman was screaming in pain. My head spun. I fell unconscious on my bed.

When I opened my eyes, I was in Peshkar-Sir’s house. The nubile young girl standing beside him caught my eye. I didn’t see the whole community of ornaments residing on her.

“ So Vasini did not die?” I asked fervently.

“No,” said Peshkar-Sir. Ah, what a great relief! I gazed at my Vasini ardently for a while longer and  asked,

“What about the old woman?”

“She is fine too,” replied the tactful gentleman. I sighed again. Forgetting all propriety in my great joy, I sat up,

“Can you please send this girl to my room?” When I reached my room and turned around, there was Vasini, right behind me.

Pointing at the six-pole-shed, I asked, “Are you going to live there again?”

Eyes wide open with surprise, she asked, “Why should I live there?”

“Then why did you stay there this long?” I asked impatiently.

“What the heck, I am not Vasini! And I have never stayed in that hut! I am Indira.”

“Then who is Vasini? In that house…?”

“Oh, that was the old woman’s much-loved pet, a pretty cat!”

Seeing clearly that my bookish love had climaxed in kitten-love, my quixotism collapsed from the very foundation. I was completely cured of the craze of love.

The next day, I moved to Indira’s house. To avoid the opportunity for more training and examination in the field of love, my relationship with her stayed  pretty matter-of-fact and utterly worldly. If it were otherwise, then, in the same heart in which the very name ‘Vasini’ produced waves and waves of excitement, the sight of Indira would have produced at least a tiny ripple.

 

(Pustakapremam, 1944)

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