Surrounded by all those medicine-bottles, seated on the chair with the book open on her lap, shielding her eyes from the light with her right hand and sniffing the inhaler held in her left, Susheela looked the very archetype of the Sick Woman. She lifted her head and looked at the clock. Nearly two o’clock. Her husband was still not home. She put the book on the table, got up and took the feeding bottle. Raising the mosquito-net, she fed the baby with it.
She felt the unbearable weight of unhappiness in her life. It wouldn’t have been so bad had she stayed back home. Here, a zillion kilometers away from home, with no friends, no relatives, all she had to call her own was this infant. She bent down and kissed the sleeping infant on its gleaming cheek lovingly.
“So you haven’t gone to sleep, Love?” Menon entered the room asking. He looked at the table smilingly. “You intend to start a pharmacy here?” He put away the medicine bottles one by one, naming them. “Eau de Cologne, Eucalyptus, Amrutanjan, Inhaler – ah, a new one today … Argerol! So your eyes are bad too today?”
Susheela went up to him, looked straight at his face and said, “My eyes are going to the dust with all the reading. What else to do when one is all alone except read? If I had someone to talk with, this table would have been clean!”
What more could she say? Pride did not let her say that she longed for his attention. Could she be the one begging for love? Instead of him seeking her attention? Really?
Susheela returned to her chair and asked, “How is Mr Sinha doing?”
She noticed that her husband was distracted. Guessing what he was thinking about, she continued, “The memsahib hasn’t gone to bed?”
Menon got up and went to the window to look at the house next door. “Ah! The lights are going off,” he said, “she’s going to bed just now.”
Susheela buried her face on the table top. Menon lifted it up and asked, “Why, Love, are you not well? Or is it your heart that is unwell? Have I not told you many times, Love, that my heart overflows with affection for you? But you still don’t believe?”
“Yes, I know. But that love now fills the heart, overflows it, even knocks down the wall, anoints the memsahib, and flows beyond.”
Menon was silent for some moments. “Chhi! Is my love so foolish? Will I gift my unsullied love to anyone else? What you mention is lust, just that! We prefer to eat rice daily, don’t we? But occasionally we crave for a sweetmeat – a boli, or a jalebi. But our true respect and love is always for rice, isn’t it?”
Susheela picked up the book she was reading and went to him. “This book is such fun! P G Wodehouse is a master of wit!” His face crumpled with distaste. “I have no clue how to enjoy these stories. Science would have been interesting.”
He found his book, on industrial technology, and began to read it. She opened the book she held and stared at it, her mind empty.
Dressed to go out, Menon looked at his watch. It was five minutes past ten in the evening. Susheela’s eyes were fixed on him. Where are you going so late tonight – was the question writ large on her face. Menon said, “Switch off the lights and go to bed, Love. Mr Sinha and I are going out for a drive.”
“Won’t you return tonight?”
“Yes, but don’t wait for me.”
Her face was expressionless.
“Where is the yellow-striped sari I got you from the Exhibition some days back, Love?” he asked.
The question which obviously had no relevance that moment surprised her. ‘I have it. Do you want it?”
“No. Tell me why you wanted it?”
“It was pretty, I thought.”
“When did you buy it?”
“I wanted it at sight but we didn’t have the money then, so we went there after your office and got it?”
“Yes, that’s how people are. If they desire something, if it is not possible to fulfill it immediately, they’ll get it when it is possible, right? Now tell me, do you still like that sari?”
“Ah, I just wanted it then, when it looked nice and new. I prefer the mundu-neryathu I wear every day.”
“That’s what I am trying to tell you. No matter where I go, I will be back by your side, Love. Do you know what all lies Mr Sinha plies his wife with? I don’t like to deceive you like that. I tell all my friends so proudly that my love is very broad-minded and understands human psychology really well! Don’t sit up all night reading!”
Menon stepped out. Susheela went in and lay down beside the infant. But it was dawn already by the time she managed to sleep.
The next evening when Menon returned from office, Susheela was standing at the window looking out. She did not turn to look when she heard his footsteps. “What are you peering at so carefully, Love?” he asked, putting his hand on her shoulder and following her eyes.
Without turning her head, Susheela said, “Look, how handsome that man is! I was so bored with reading! So I came over here and see how time has flown! He’s waiting for someone. Even the way he turns his head is so special, so attractive! I think he lives somewhere near here.”
Menon pulled her away from the window in a seemingly-playful way and seated her on the chair. “Love, you look so tired! Maybe it’s the summer! And you are all alone besides. Father and Mother want to see the baby too. Aren’t you dying to visit them too?”
“Yes, I thought of that too. Will be more fun there for sure.”
“But the pain of my absence …”
“Oh, don’t worry, that’s alright,” she said with a smile, “Theophile Gautier asks in one place, is it the case that only owners of cows drink milk?”
“As you wish,” replied Menon in a tone that was somewhat stern but not outright angry. “But do remember that my honour is in your hands, not mine… Men have the freedom to do anything they please. Don’t I always tell you that if you do something wrong, I will suffer more, my Love?”
“Wasn’t I joking?” Susheela responded in a cheery but even tone. “You can rely on me. I avoid stepping in the mud not because I am afraid that the world will laugh at me but because I don’t like to soil myself.”
Menon picked up a book and started reading. While they were having tea, Susheela said, “In that case I am writing home tomorrow itself. But there’s one thing to be done. We have to find a good cook, let off the present one. If we can find a loving, devoted, clean cook, you won’t even notice that I am gone.” Then, after a pause, she continued playfully, “Another thing – don’t forget that the cot which the baby and I sleep on belongs to this Love of yours. Don’t let your Bodies-Devoted-to-Serving bless it.”
As if in response, Menon, who saw romance in economics, said, “I think I can send two hundred and fifty rupees a month. Try to limit your expenses to this amount. But don’t struggle to do so.”
Susheela got a few letters unexpectedly a week after she reached Thiruvananthapuram. “People say that you have come back after a quarrel with your husband. Is that true? I see you every day. It is only to catch a glimpse of you that I come by your street daily.”
Rajan had been her playmate as a child. That friendship stayed sweet even after childhood. But a love letter he had given her scribbled on a piece of paper had made that practical-minded girl grow distant. That fourteen-year-old sensed that he could not be a husband befitting her social standing. But now, the twenty-four-year-old woman could not help feeling that what mattered in a woman’s life was not social standing but love.
She held the letter in her hand and stayed thoughtful for a while. Why not cool her heart bereft of a husband’s love with this spring of ardour? Was not her husband’s indifference growing and growing? Was not the cesspool of mental peace preferable to the desert of purity? Her husband was of the view that once legally wedded, he was under no obligation to show his wife any real affection. Ah, but women loved not the individual man, but the idea, the imagination, of the husband! The root of women’s devotion to their husbands lies not in their love for those men but in the diligence with which they pursue the greatness of their own selves!
The day after they found a very efficient servant through an ad in the papers and appointed him, Menon threw a grand tea-party in European style. Mr Sinha, Mr Gupta, and all his other friends of his were present. In the middle of the meal, Mr Sinha asked, “So, Mr Menon, you have sent your wife home?”
“Ah, don’t we need variety in this world?”
“Poor thing,” said Mr Singh, “What difference would it have made if she were here now? You two are perpetually in two chairs, reading two books. I haven’t once seen you talk or laugh together !”
“That’s true,” Menon was not joking. “I often think, if one can find a good cook, why does one need a wife at all?”
( “Vaividhyam Vende?”, 1943)