The Woman Subordinate: K Saraswathi Amma

Paru Amma sat still, forgetting her surroundings, not even noticing that the rice had boiled over and extinguished the hearth. On her right side hung a large coconut-palm fronds-mat. She had to barely turn her head; through a gaping hole in the mat, everything next door could be seen. The other side of the road was elevated. The number of rooms in that house, the exact spot where the kitchen stood, the bathroom – Paru Amma knew it all. Her memories would fly back to her maidenhood when someone came occasionally to stay there. Once she reached that time, her mind would  dwell upon the house and it alone.

Today there was a commotion there. The Devaswam Commissioner had arrived on a circuit visit. His two daughters were also with him.

The subordinate officers, eager to please their superior, had divided responsibilities among themselves. In that assignment of responsibilites, the task that had fallen on her head as the sweeper of the temple—

The incident that morning made her shudder when she remembered it.

Since the past two days, it was her daughter Lakshmikkutty who had sweeping the temple instead of her. She had arthritis, and was it was getting worse. It was ten when she woke up that day. She was sitting on the east-side-facing veranda nursing her swollen knee when the temple-manager arrived.

He made the demand straight to her face, with no preface whatsoever, without stepping inside her house.

Paru Amma was speechless for a while. This was the Commissioner Menon’s want. If it was not fulfilled? Her mind did not consider the fairness or unfairness of that demand. The manager was not dumb enough to let her know that this was his invention, designed to evoke the master’s favour.

Noticing her silence, he said, “Let it go this time, just this once. Is the chance to serve the master so trivial? What all favours may follow from it? The driver says that there’s no hassle on this account in any place he’s gone so far. So just think if there’s a hitch in just this one place, what the consequences will be. Someone will point you out as the cause of the snag! You won’t be able to bear the retribution after.”

“What if Lakshmikkutty were your sister, Your Honour?” Her voice rose slowly.

“Chhi!” His sense of honour was inflamed by that question. “This fatherless girl, my sister?”

That silenced Paru Amma’s allusion to equality. Noticing this, he continued, “I’ll send Lakshmikkutty back soon. After the evening worship, he’ll come back here alone leaving the girls in the temple. I’ll come and get her then. If you make a fuss …”

To make sure that she would not seek any escape-route at that crucial moment, he said in a voice dripping with threat: “Remember, you’ll incur the displeasure of Commissioner-yajmaan. He can even get the police to file a case against you – and then the girl’s going to be in a terrible soup – the policemen … they’ll just divide her up among themselves.  This is much better. Will be helpful in the future too.”

Seeing that words were useless, Paru Amma said nothing. The manager went away as though everything was arranged.

After that her heart had known no peace at all. To have to find a solution to this catastrophe on the Krishnashtami  — the day on which she could never think of anything straight! The day she keeps waiting for, the memory of which she lived on the rest of the year! The anniversary of something that happened when she was seventeen. The Ashtami Rohini day in the month of Chingam.

 

——————-

The snake-venom-healer Krishna Pillai had moved there at a time when local folk were feeling the need for precisely such a healer. In a very short while, his skill and luck came together to secure him an excellent reputation. The art master in the local middle-school drew the image of a serpent with a raised hood on the left corner of a rectangular board and the sign ‘Snake-venom cured here’ next to it, and hung it up in front of his house.  That was the certificate he received from people there for his curative powers.

The healer was fortunate in his home-life too. His wife was such a gem of a woman. But she died young leaving a toddler barely three; the healer and local folk were submerged in tears.

His second wife was nick-named ‘snake’ by the locals. All the venom I have ever drawn out of my patients has attained human form in her, thought the healer too. In that house which used to be so peaceful, quarrels and hunger strikes and loud cries became common.  The healer felt that the house was always filled with venomous flames. The years passed. One day, a venomous fever transported him to her first wife. A searing flash of pain passed through his inner self at the thought of his daughter.

Under the control of her stepmother, Parukkutty realized that it was not the good karma of one’s parents, or one’s own perfect karma that determined the distribution of happiness and sorrow; some uninterpretable force controlled it. Her life now was pure hell. Even then she did not think of escaping through suicide. She who used to wilt earlier in the face of her stepmother’s harsh scolding, gradually learned to become indifferent to even the most ruthlessly cruel behavior.

In the end she learned to endure everything – even the rare and fleeting pleasures that came her way endurance. That was the only reason why she continued to live and her body continued to grow.

Five or six years after her father passed away, her stepmother bought a piece of land opposite their house and began to build a new house there. Her younger brother assisted her in this, and he moved in with them. Parukkutty’s troubles worsened.

The new house was soon built and a Munsif and his family moved there.

That was Parukkutty’s seventeenth birthday. She had not eaten anything since morning. By evening, she was worn out; sitting on the west-facing verandah, she wept remembering her father.

Three children were standing by the wall of the neighboring house and were calling noisily, “Hey, look here, look here!” She raised her head towards them. Behind them stood their grandmother. That kind woman said to her, “Don’t cry, come up here. I will give you whatever you want.”

Yes, and she did give her all that she wanted. Her body needed food; but she needed something else – love, warmth – the body’s and the heart’s needs. She got that too, from the old lady. If it were someone else in her place, they would have said that the consequences of that fulfillment were utterly undesirable. But when one is racked by hunger, if one is offered poisoned rice, what does it matter if one dies eating it? Will not the joy of a full stomach cancel out the pain of death? Parukkutty thought so.

In that house, besides the Munsif, there lived his wife, three children, his brother who was a lawyer, their mother, and two or three servants. The grandmother was someone born in a really poor family who became rich only because she had married well. Therefore she always took pity on the poor. Especially on those who had fallen from prosperity.

Parukkutty was to take care of the children; once in a while she had to do the washing and the sweeping too. Her favourite task was collecting flowers for the old lady’s morning and evening pujas.  She spent all day in that house and returned only at night to go to bed braving her stepmother’s and her brother’s rebukes. They had much to say about the girl who was bringing ill-fame to the family by working in the house next door. But these arrows could not pierce too deeply the armour of the day’s memories that protected her heart.

And thus, there was light now in Parukkutty’s bleak life.

But soon, the Munsif was transferred. He left with his wife and children and servants. The lawyer, however, did not want to leave because he had been earning quite well there. His mother did not oppose him either.

She decided that Parukkutty would suffice to take care of the two of them. Every aspect of their life passed through her grateful little hands and was well taken care of.

On the Ashtami Rohini day of Chingam, the lawyer had returned from his office, had his tea, and was out for a walk. Parukkutty caught his eye. She was just out of the bath with her long hair gathered together in a loose knot at the bottom. She was in a fresh white mundu, under-mundu, and a light blue blouse, and held a tray on which there were many different flowers – the hibiscus, peaflower, the evening mandaram, tulasi, jasmine, the coral-white pavizhamalli.  The youthful bloom of seventeen, the fresh beauty of her expression – they met on the staircase.

She was making way, head bowed, sticking to an extreme corner of the steps. Impulsively, just to say something to her, he asked, “Where is Mother?”

She stopped and turned around, “Ammachi is having a bath.”

He climbed back and came close, looking at the tray, “Why so many flowers today? Anything special?”

She raised her head to look at him, “Isn’t it Ashtami Rohini today? Ammachi might say this isn’t enough!”

He could not pull himself away. Something alluring made him stay. Not clear which – the scent of the flowers, or the charm of the girl who held them.

“Do you know who is worshipped on Ashtami Rohini?”

Seeing the young master’s mood that day, Parukkutty felt a sense of wonder – and in her heart, joy. She said, “Yes, this is Srikrishna’s birthday. I am taking all these flowers to adorn him.”

Gopalan Nair drew closer to her. “All right, carry on. Am I not his namesake? You can worship me. I am very fond of flowers.”

Parukkutty was wonder-struck, petrified. What was this? What if Ammachi saw any of this? She said, “Please take the flowers you like. It is getting late to prepare for worship.”

“I am stuck with stacks of paper, what do I know of flowers?” He found her wonderment very amusing. “You choose a nice one for me?”

Her only prayer was to somehow get out of this without Ammachi noticing – maybe her youth prayed otherwise.  She took some jasmine and pavizhamalli flowers and said, “Here, please take these.”

He extended his hand not to take the flowers but to hold the hand that held them out. Not that a strange nervousness did not grip her. But because of some other intense pleasure that exceeded it, the tray fell from her hands. Hearing his mother’s footsteps, Gopalan Nair said, “She’s coming. Gather all these and prepare for the worship, quick!”

Because it was Ashtami Rohini, the puja took a while. Usually when she entered the puja room, Parukkutty’s mind was filled with the image of Lord Krishna alone. But now, despite her best efforts, she could see only ‘Lord Krishna’s namesake’ stand before her smiling.  A thrill of pleasure coursing through her body as she bowed down to pay salutations to the deity, the young girl folded those hands of hers which had known a man’s touch for the very first time and prayed selflessly, “God, please raise him to heights in his life. May he experience only goodness from me; may he never suffer because of me.”

The Lord heard her prayer – in a rather unexpected way. Before the next day dawned, the mother had to leave the house. It was a telegram from the Munsif. The eldest child was gravely ill; please come here soon, said the telegram.

She prepared quickly for the journey. “I don’t know when I can come back,” she told Parukkutty. “Till then, you make sure that Gopi doesn’t starve. He won’t eat anything other than what I cook and serve, but he tolerates your cooking. After the day’s work, feed him in the evening, have your supper, and go home. No one is going to say a word about that. But please take care of his wishes?”

Whatever she meant by that last sentence, Parukkutty followed the words of her benefactress, the goddess who had appeased her hunger, to the last letter.  She fulfilled all his likes and wishes selflessly. The consequences which flowed from the fulfillment of that duty …

Yes, she had no partner to share it. Nor did she desire one.

When Mother, who had said that she would return in a month, took much longer, Parukkutty grew nervous. She worried that she was a hurdle in the path of a man who should attain the honour of becoming the husband of a lucky, rich young woman.  But more than that, she feared being known as the ungrateful wretch who repaid the favour shown by her benefactress by pulling from her compassionate arms her darling son. So even in the upsurge of love, her practical intelligence stayed rooted. She knew well that all the love scenes enacted in private were not the first act of that publicly-performed drama, marriage. Once the donor of those delightful experiences departed, would not the memories remain to keep her ecstatic?

Maybe because the lawyer was so smart, not a soul suspected anything of what was happening in their lives. Things went on uninterrupted – before the public they were the master and his distant servant, and in private, they were lover and beloved, joined together in a single soul.

That dream of pleasure which was not to be hers lasted a very short while. One day, Gopalan Nair called her and asked, “What will you do when I am gone?”

That shook her. After some moments of silence, she replied, “Will work. And live.”

“Under those who come and stay in this house? Isn’t it?”

Parukutty threw him a searing look. She saw what he was hinting at.  The sharp response to that barb was in her eyes – the pride of the poor woman! Agitated, she said, “Those who want to live by labour can do so anyhow. No one in my family has taken to whoring.”

That, coming from a girl not yet eighteen, shamed him. But her declaration of chastity satisfied his selfishness. He said lovingly, “I will find you a job to live on – the sweeper’s job in the Krishna temple here. I just need to talk with the Devaswam Commissioner; or can get Amma to talk. Amma and Brother have fixed my marriage with his daughter. The order giving you the job will arrive before my wedding. I will leave only after I give you enough money to carry on till then.”

In this way Gopalan Nair bid goodbye to that place and the lawyer’s profession. Parukkutty, who never troubled her mind with things she could not solve, sobbed uncontrollably, unendingly. That scene affected Nair’s tender heart deeply.

That he had kept his word became evident a month later. After four months, his charity became evident in yet another way. “My daughter’s ended up a mother herself taking care and more care of the Lawyer-master?” Her stepmother sneered constantly. She paid no attention.

But she loved the child not as a part of herself but as the memory of many other things.

After that, eighteen Ashtami Rohinis dawned and faded, renewing memories in Parukkutty’s heart each time. On each New Year, she would remember not the Tiruonam day but Krishnashtami.  On that holy day, when people pestered him during the evening worship with their selfish demands, the Lord would hear just one unselfish plea – emanating from that wholly impractical woman, her thin arms brought together in salutation and lost to the world in prayer. And it was always the same – if the progenitor of her fatherless child was alive, please give him all the pleasures in the world. If he was no more, please let him ascend to heavenly heights.

This morning too, she had woken up with such thoughts. But the manager’s visit had upset everything.

Paru Amma was baffled. On the anniversary of her experience of love, in the very house where it happened, was her daughter to suffer this fate? Why thus? Divine retribution?

She recalled her experiences in that house. There, that day, a whole new joyful, seductive, new world opened to her eyes unexpectedly. The owner of that world closed up very early, locked it, pocketed the keys, and set off again on the journey of his life. But those experiences had not waned in her memory.  But, in contrast, what was her daughter’s fate to be? Leave aside the gossip, which cools down in the winds of time. Just for a day, just for that day alone, for someone – may he be an emperor even – to appease his hunger, she must surrender her virginity? There would be no memories that would sate her femininity. No loving relationship that would save her heart from other thoughts.

Paru Amma saw before her eyes a life that bled constantly from memories that would disappear only after death. That long-drawn thrashing-about!

Suddenly another thought dawned on her, something that did not suit the gentle heart of a mother. She imagined her daughter’s bleeding, writhing body. Yes, there was pain and struggle but it was momentary. And where was she to go after? Will a murder go unpunished? The messengers of Yama in their red hats; arms adorned with bracelets of cold iron; the granite cell in the dark prison; the abode of judges, filled with black-coat-clad purveyors of eloquence. And beyond? Paru Amma saw much in her mind. But her stepmother’s training was such that even the worst suffering looked trivial to Paru.

Lakshmikutty came up to her fresh from her bath with a tray of flowers, her long hair gathered at the bottom. Shaking her mother awake from her reverie, she said, “Amma, I finished all the sweeping in the temple before I had a bath. The Sreekaryam-manager said that I need not go this evening. Did you hear? The Commissioner and his daughters have come to the temple. I have never seen such girls before! They don’t look even a bit like their father. Their saris and skirts are all so shiny! You have to squint when you look! Sreekaryam-angunnu told me to adorn their hairdos with flowers! Look, I stood this close – this close—to the Commissioner- yejamaan when I did it!”

Paru Amma looked unwaveringly at her daughter. She saw why the manager had made her do that. She felt as though that scene was unfolding right in front of her eyes. The poor girl! Until now she had been lucky enough not to know the purpose for which a living being took birth in a poor home as a woman. She said, “Make the garlands quickly; it is nearly time to light the lamp.”

Lakshmikkutty went off to obey her mother without changing her clothes wet from the bath. Paru Amma did not check if the rice was cooked. Hanging the pot on a holder, she stepped out through the western side and looked at the house next door.

It was nearly time for the evening worship. The two elaborately-dressed young girls were adding finishing touches to their finery. What a fortunate life, theirs! Like Lakshmikkutty guessed, they must be true copies of their mother. Lakshmikkutty’s progenitor, too, must now be the owner of a house overflowing with all possible luxuries …Paru Amma turned towards the temple, closed her eyes, brought her palms together in prayer. Her heart laid her memories at the feet of the Lord.

Lakshmikutty sat leaning on the cow-dung-smeared wall as she decorated the statue of Krishna set on a wooden plank. The sound of the conch from the temple during the hour of worship rose. That stirred ripples of loving devotion in her heart too.

It was with palms pressed together that Paru Amma stood behind her daughter gazing at her worship. But her heart did not submit to any devotion. The sound of a foot-fall; she turned to look.  Though she could not see the Sreekaryam-manager’s swarthy form, she knew… she bent down … Lakshmikkutty who was adorning the picture of Krishna on the wall with a garland, collapsed with a loud scream.

The front of that tiny house filled with people in a trice.

Paru Amma stood with her hands folded in prayer before the framed picture of the Lord who had allegedly taken avatars to re-establish Dharma and protect the innocent. She heard nothing of the chaos. Nor did the sight of her daughter, who lay bleeding on the floor near her, shake her mind. She was back in time to that Ashtami Rohini day of eighteen years ago, seeing ‘Lord Krishna’s namesake’ in her heart.

“Commissioner-addeham” “Commissioner-addeham,” People whispered as they moved to make way. The visitor asked in a dignified voice, “What is happening here?”

The voice interrupted Paru Amma’s prayer; she turned her head to see where it came from.

The Commissioner stepped on the veranda taking care not to hit the iron railing of the low ceiling. A petromax lamp followed him. The local folk praised his kindness in their minds, evident in his willingness to visit a poor house in trouble. Pointing to the blood-soaked body on the floor, he asked, “Who did this?”

Paru Amma paid salutations to the Lord’s image and turned towards him. She said, “I.”

“Why?”

“Better to die than be despoiled.”

Her expression and voice shook his heart violently. He even suspected that they pointed to him as the cause of this terrible deed. Without revealing his inner turmoil, the Commissioner asked, “How are you related?”

He saw a smile quiver on her face. Was she smiling, forgetting her subordinate status? “This is my daughter. Some twenty years ago, there was a lady in that house who stayed here for a while. Her name was Lakshmikkutty Amma. I was very devoted to that family so I named my child after her.”

The Commissioner’s mind flew to his youth.  From amidst vague recollections of many, many women, slowly, the form of a seventeen-year-old girl surfaced.  She who had given herself to him so willingly, with no fear of ill-fame, whom he did not have to force at all — Parukkutty!  For some time after they parted, her form used to dawn in his mind without reason; but gradually, it faded and disappeared.

The Commissioner looked closely at the woman who stood in front of him. He suspected that his guess was wrong. Even if those tresses were now shorter, how come they were so scanty? That face, how could it have become so ugly? What happened to the fresh health and rosy countenance of that young woman who had so proudly made the vow of chastity before him?

Suddenly, his eyes fell on the dead girl on the floor. Were the mother’s endowments transferred to another living being he had given life to … He quaked within. If his guess was right, who was the girl the manager had pointed out to him that evening?

Controlling the faint tremble in his voice by covering it with the dignity of office, he asked, “What is your name?”

Bending down to massage her swollen knee, in a voice that was serene and unshakeable, Paru Amma said, “My name is Paru Amma. In the old days, people used to call me Parukkutty. Now people know only me only if you ask for Sweeper Paru Amma.”

 

[Keezhjeevanakkari. 1946. First appeared as Adichutalikkari (The Sweeper)]

 

 

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