It was Kuttappan who was most elated by the news that his older brother was going to marry a Higher-trained primary school teacher.
This brother had a whole philosophy regarding the performance of the husbandly role. He possessed neither education nor a proper livelihood. And was not going to bother about those either. As long as women outnumber men in the world’s population, he deemed, the husband needed no special qualification except that of being male. Education, a job, hard work – these qualifications are not necessary for a husband; they are merely extra. What was wrong in being the income-less husband of a woman who earns a salary? Just because a cow brings a profit to the owner, will anyone make it the sovereign ruler of the home? In the normal case, becoming a husband means carrying the load of responsibility and material obligations. However, you can be Master of the House without such special burdens. All terms, theoretical and practical, favour the husband’s side in this merger. The complete responsibility of the Finance Department is happily ceded to him by the wife in the very first clause of the contract. How is a woman who dries out her throat daily hollering at school kids all day able to find any time to manage it? The little time she has left will naturally be employed in managing the kitchen and the cradle, and is barely sufficient for these activities? Therefore the husband can also put himself to work on Internal Affairs and Neighbourhood Affairs. Going by tradition, it may be said that the affairs of the Department of Broadcasting and Telecommunications is likely to be suited to the wife’s ability and that it is a matter of her right as well. But in case she has no time and chance to handle it, then he may try his hand there too.
Kuttappan did not agree with his brother on these matters. He, who had stood on his own two feet from the age of fourteen, believed that unless the husband protected his wife, there was no meaning whatsoever in Manliness. He was not yet eighteen and wanted to breathe free for another ten years. But along with this, he had one really strong wish. That was going to be fulfilled by his brother’s alliance. A woman who could speak confidently to others – in the printed-language style – who wore slippers, draped a sari, tucked a ladies’ umbrella under her armpit – she’s becoming a member of the family! His mother was a huge ignoramus; his sisters had not crossed primary school. Will not the new sister-in-law glow bright among these uncouth women who speak crude colloquialisms and hang about with thin towels thrown on their shoulders? Like a swan amidst common water fowls?
The new bride arrived. Kuttappan felt more of respect and admiration, and not love, towards her. Not just because of her age, but because of everything else about her. But she had no slippers! That was an important element in his mental image of her. Kuttappan was very disappointed. But would he bury his desire in the disappointmen?
Next payday, he went straight to the shoe shop. What variety! The images of young women mounted on high heels trotting ahead like warhorses went past his mind. The ones covered with shiny satin were meant for the rich who rode in motorcars. Sister-in-law needed no such fancy or expensive shoes. The ones with the golden straps would look pretty on her feet, and would last long too, but she may refuse them saying that they were excessive for her humble status. An ordinary pair would do. He guessed her size and chose a pair. The picture of his sister-in-law walking elegantly with the slippers on making a tak-tak sound rose up in his imagination as he paid four silver rupees.
His aim was to bury her in joy and surprise with that unexpected gift. But when he actually presented it, he thought that joyless astonishment filled her face. He looked at Mother who stood beside her. It bore precisely the piercing look that he had feared. “Your nephew-boy’s been up and down asking for a shirt and you told him, no paisa!! And you have money for thisss? Alright, this had to happen. Penniless fellow brought home a bride; at least his little brother must give? Older fellow wants an older sister-ish-woman for a wife, the younger chap wants a doubly-old one! My fate!” She walked off in a huff, turning her head sharply.
The daughter-in-law was not pained by the mother-in-law’s tirade – after all, she had never shown the slightest sign of liking her. From the moment in which she had inspected the new daughter-in-law from top to toe, there had been nothing but annoyance in her eyes. She had not expected such miserable poverty in her husband’s home. Would she have jumped into this trap had she known that the natty clothes he had worn to snare her were all borrowed? And now, she was apparently too old, not pretty enough – nothing but fault did they see in her! “Of the ones I bore, only this fellow is good-looking and he’s got a wife that’s plain as a pikestaff’! Ugly she is, but at least could be younger? He’s not happy with his own older sisters – there he goes and gets himself a new older sister on his own!” Mother’s normal day-to-day talk went thus. The daughter-in-law guessed that the mother-in-law was frustrated by the fact that her daughters did not enjoy the conveniences she possessed. Even the sisters-in-law who visited occasionally were not too pleased with her.
Their liking was readily bought for a price. But where was the money for that? Like at home where her father took her entire salary, here she gave all of it to the husband. But that did not fetch his love. “You can keep to yourself the airs of being a salaried woman! Go find other chaps to gape at those!” The husband believed that declarations like these which repeatedly reaffirmed his masculinity sufficed for husband-hood. She now saw what he had actually meant by his words before their wedding – “I can’t live without you.” What was the point of realizing now that what he really meant was ‘I can’t live without your salary’?
In the whole house, only Kuttappan had real affection for her. He must have foregone many of his own needs to get her this gift. Weren’t his wages low, just enough to meet his needs? The debts contracted to keep the house going on his meager wages – before she became part of it – were not yet paid back fully. He was pleading with the creditors to make her feel happy! How to refuse a gift given with such great hope, how to disappoint him? If his warmth also ceases, how to live in this house?
Thinking thus, she took care not to let the glumness of her mind overwhelm her sunny countenance. It was the dilemma of having to deal with something too bitter to be swallowed and too sweet to spit out that troubled her. His warmth was sweet but the slippers were bitter, in her reckoning. How to walk around in them when she had never worn a pair before? When she gave in to Kuttappan’s insistence that she should practice walking in them on the veranda, they kept falling off her feet. His instruction that she should press down the big toe made it impossible for her to walk.
Kuttappan stayed back from work that weekend trying to train her to walk with slippers on. He ignored his brother’s teasing and Mother’s angry murmurs. Though she ignored Mother’s ever-darkening face, the contempt in her husband’s look humiliated her. In the end, she put an end to Kuttappan’s training session by promising him that she would wear the slippers definitely when she went to work on Monday.
Kuttappan took leave from work to see his sister-in-law leave the house clad in a sari, wearing slippers, and holding a ladies’ umbrella. The sight was so gratifying, he almost shed tears of joy. If she had managed to go tak-tak on the road in those slippers, even that might have happened.
She managed to walk in the slippers until she got out of Kuttappan’s eyeshot. Not practice, but the sheer wish to conform made this possible. But after she reached some distance, when she tried to press down the big toe, it seemed to go up instead of down. It hurt somewhere, too. She bent down and tried to shift the straps of the slippers to the side. The skin on the part of the foot where they had pressed down hard was broken, red, and bleeding.
She began to lift each foot carefully and bring it down, walking the slowest she could. After some time, she felt worried – at this rate, when would she reach the school? Won’t it be noon? The old crone of the Headmistress would hurl abuse at her freely. If something happened to her job, her life would end there, no doubts about that.
She kept moving ahead, dragging, heaving, pulling, her feet. But soon even this was not possible; her feet were refusing to move. They were stubbornly demanding that she remove the slippers.
What way out now? There was none other than removing the slippers, since they were not feet-protectors but feet-punishers. But what to do with them? Can’t throw them into the wayside thickets. Was it right to throw away hard-earned money, and more importantly, the far more valuable unselfish affection that they represented? But wouldn’t people laugh at her if she carried them in her hands instead of putting them on her feet? And besides, as a new bride, people were still scrutinizing her! Precisely for that reason, she couldn’t go to a nearby house and request them to keep them there till she returned. God alone knows how they would jest the moment her back turned! And with that added insult, would her husband and mother-in-law spare her? It could also bring bad luck to poor Kuttappan.
Suddenly, an idea struck her. Looking around helplessly, she noticed the umbrella. What if she folded it? If the circle could be turned into a line, then the sunshade would become a storage sheath! If the sunshade kept you from the sun, the sheath can keep the slippers safe. There was just one hitch. She had got used to opening the umbrella in rain and sun whenever she stepped out of the house, since many years now.
So unused she was to taking the sun, even the gentle early-morning sunlight could give her a headache. Walking in the hot sun would make her sweat and that would give her fever and chills. But her feet were not averse of any surface however hot. Maybe this punishment meted to the head was retribution for the idea that such hardy feet needed to be packed and protected.
Making sure that no one was watching, she took off the slippers and thrust them into the umbrella. The head-saver that now saved the feet-savers was quickly stuffed under her armpit. Her feet, freed now like birds bursting out of a cage, strode ahead rapidly. She did not care about the bruises on them. Does the bird bother about the wounds from cage-breaking, even a bit?
When the sun’s bright warm hands fell on her head and feet alike, she thought: “Hell is wherever the sinner goes. And look, even the affection I get is, in effect, hurt and harm.”
(Drohathinite Phalam Cheyta Sneham)