The Womanly Birth: K Saraswathi Amma

 

Malathy was furious. “Indeed! You have all possible tricks in this world up your sleeve! Total loose cannon – in word and deed! But will you let anyone pick a fight with you or get angry? No, no, you take out the charm, the cooing! Hug, put arms around their neck, hold up their chin, and what all other sorts of darling –y antics? Look, Santhy, stop this clowning now!”

Santhy sat quiet looking all guilty and stooped. Her silence made Malathy angrier still. “Really! You think you are big enough to visit me at my house? What is my position, what is yours?”

“Yes,” Santhy said sounding meek and really proper, her head still bowed. “I am the poorest of the poor, and  Malathy …”

“…the next Empress!”

“Maybe so. Let the time of post-War reorganization begin. When it comes, I will hang around your doorstep, waiting eternally for a single meeting.”

Not that Santhy and her friends did not fight.  But usually, when one of them got angry the other would stay silent as though she were admitting guilt. Some tantrums were completely baseless. But these friends knew how to keep their cool, not because of some great ability to suffer, but because of a natural urge to keep the quarrel small. If a sunny smile appeared instead of a wan guilty look, that would be a disaster, the end! Then even if one ended the silence and tried to pacify the other, it would take a long, long while for her to cool down. Once cooled down and relaxed, talking about the impropriety of that tantrum would be easy.

The anger on Malathy’s face subsided.  “The number of times I came here is uncountable!” She sounded hurt.

“I haven’t written down how many. This is Thiruvananthapuram, isn’t it? You have to come here many times? So you come to my place too. I invited only Sushama to come home. She has shown me such affection! What am I to do if others just decide to come?”

Anger and sadness playing together on her face, Malathy seized her umbrella. Santhy ran up to her and taking it away by force, held both her hands and said in a pleading voice, “Dear, dear Malathy, my own! Please don’t go away in a huff! The truth is that I don’t want to go away from Thiruvananthapuram even for a single day. Even London or Paris isn’t going to give me the happiness this place does.  But I will come, give me five minutes to change my clothes. You go to Mother and get her permission to let me come. The north-bound train is at six thirty. It is not yet six now.”

The two stepped out of the house at six. They needed less than ten minutes to get to the Pettah railway station.

One of women in Anglo-Indian dress chattering in a circle on the platform turned around to look. Santhy exclaimed in surprise, “Ah, look who’s here!”

A young girl in a patchwork dress wearing a spotted hat, high-heeled shoes, and stockings ran up to them. Santhy poked her on her powdered cheek and introduced Malathy: “This is Malathy – she has passed the Honours and now toils in a government school for exactly twenty rupees. This is Veroni-kka – like the many vegetables, Muringa-kka, Kathiri-kka and so on – we call her Nelli-kka to indicate that she is edible. She’s my bus-mate. We stand shoulder to shoulder in defiance of the pushing and shoving inside the bus! Hey, Imitation Mem-sa’ab, you are finishing the final year of BA now, aren’t you?”

She nodded in agreement. But a commotion just behind them made them all turn to look. A young man in a hat and pants and a long Jubba-shirt was taking a couple of steps with much fanfare; he hit something and tumbled on the ground. Coins flew out of his pocket all around. Santhy said laughingly, “Look at this Memsa’ab’s clothes? Won’t people break their heads laughing?”

The young fellow was picking up the coins in a hurry to leave. Veronica picked up a one-rupee coin he hadn’t noticed and handed it to him. After he had moved a distance away, she turned her head to them sharply and said, “This fellow has the same sickness as the bus-conductor! I held that coin far out to him, but he had to take it touching me!”

“Ah, so he took your hand, in this short while?” Santhy’s laugh was uncontrollable. “He thought that your assistance was a sign of love at first sight! And your clothes match too, sees? Congratulations to the newly-weds!”

“My Jesus! Santhy, your tongue! What all it prattles! Who is he? Not even of my community!”

“Well, well! Isn’t that the latest fad? Alright, be that as it may, who is with you, Nelli-kka?”

“That is my cousin Bella.”

“Ayyo, belladonna! Get close at your own risk! And who are the others?”

“One is Mummy.”

“Ok, Kummi, and the other is Kurathippaattu. That’s Auntie for sure. Where are they all going?

“My cousin is going to Madras. Her husband works there.”

“Going to her aspandam?”

Malathy got the tickets, and the train arrived just then. Seeing Bella being kissed on the cheek by the others before they departed, Santhy whispered to Malathy, “Take good note, this is going to be latest among us ten years later.”

Malathy’s house was very close to the Kazhakkoottam station. It was an old traditional-style house, redone. When they reached, two little ones were playing rice-and-curry in the frontyard. Malathy went in. Santhy put her suitcase down and sat next to them.

Those were Malathy’s older sister’s children. Calling aside the older girl child and holding her close, Santhy asked, “What is your name?” Clapping her hands covered with dust and mud, she answered, “I am Cya-mala, this is Ci-van.”

‘Civan’ who was preparing the mud to be stuffed into the coconut shell to be made into jaggery, lifted his head, took one grave look, and went back to his work. Santhy opened her suitcase, got a comb out, and proceeded to dress Syamala up. She combed Syamala’s hair, powdered her face, and adorned her ears with two dangling earrings with red stones. Pressing her forehead on the child’s, she put a bindi on it. When the make-up session culminated in bangles on both arms, Syamala jumped for joy. The only hitch was that they were too big for her arms and so she could not lower them.

But the dressing-up was interrupted by Sivan’s bawling. He was rubbing his eyes with his hands; Santhy went over and picked him up. She let him sit on her lap and thought of a way to pacify him. Wiping his hand quickly and taking off her wrist-watch, she tied it around his wrist. By the time she tied a red handkerchief on his head, he was hugging her around her neck and kissing her face. Her neck was now all dusty and mud-smeared. She tried to wipe it off with the sari-edge but still felt bothered.

A group of people entered the yard and Santhy stood up. The kids hung on to each arm, so she could not pick up the suitcase. Malathy, who had changed, came out, and seeing her plight, threw a stern look at the kids who fled in different directions.  Santhy was worried, but not thinking that they may fall down and break their legs; she just wanted her things they were wearing to be safe!

There were four women and a man in the front veranda, Malathy said, “A neighbour of ours is getting married. We invited them for a meal today. The one standing next to the wife is my sister. The others are my mother and grandmother.”

Noticing the sister’s very pregnant belly, Santhy asked, “Which month is she in?”

“This is the tenth. Sivan turned two last month. Chechi gives birth every time her older child turns two!”

Santhy responded in a low voice, “That’s a new sort of calendar, isn’t it?”

They got up on the veranda. Malathy’s mother said, “You came on a good day. Don’t you want to see the new bridegroom? He’s a heavyweight of sorts in these parts. The new bride is very shy.”

Santhy smiled at them all like an absolutely innocent young girl. The forty-five-year-old grandee’s body itself looked quite weighty. His family must have had roots in the pygmy race which must have resided here in the times in which India and Africa were conjoined.  The very-shy new bride must have been around twenty-eight. She wore a thirty-rupee-worth gold-bordered neryathu pinned to a satin blouse near her left shoulder. When the man noticed that everyone looking at them, he moved closer to his bride and smoothed her hair back. Pulling the end of her neryathu over her right shoulder, he re-formed her somewhat. Santhy laughed long, pretending as though she was playing peek-a-boo with Syamala who had hidden herself behind the pillar.

The guests departed when it was time to light the prayer-lamp in the evening. “Your watch and bangles are in your suitcase,” said Malathy, “I’ll be back soon.” She went off somewhere. Santhy and the children were left before the prayer-lamp. Syamala began reciting Rama’s name, peering in between through her shut eyes, watching out to check if Raman was appearing. Sivan seemed to think that ‘Yaama’ lived exactly in the middle portion of the flame, and so his eyes were utterly focused there. He made a show of bowing down, praying, whatever, and climbed into Santhy’s lap. Syamala’s recitation ended that moment.

What followed was a battle between the two for control of the empire that was Santhy’s lap. To end the war, she pulled them both in there and tried to tell them a story. Remembering how Sushama had told her never to tell children stories about husbands and wives, she started telling them the story of the King of the frogs. That was about frogs in a pond prayed to God for a king, and he dropped a lifeless log into the pond, but the subjects were dissatisfied with this unmoving king and so prayed again, and so God got furious and sent them a crane as King. The children understood that this was about a king only when she referred to him as ponnutampuran.  To escape the demand for another story, Santhy handed a first-standard primer to Syamala, and a kiss to Sivan and got up to go to a room inside which was filled with prayer.

Malathy’s grandmother was making a frontal assault on the empire of bhakti. Upon a three-inch-high platform, a number of pictures were lined up. A clean-shaven Gangaakanta, a Shanmugha on a peacock flanked by women, Kumbhimukha, fated to have two wives, Gopalakrishna, teaching Radha how to play the flute, Srirama, being anointed King with Sita on his lap. Whatever the greatness of the Hindu religion, the many Gods it reveres and uses as instruments to guide the morality of followers ignorant of the Vedantic interpretations are so undesirable as exemplars, thought Santhy, as she sat beside the old lady.

She sang many verses. The one that strung together the names of famous Siva shrines, starting with ‘The first Tirunelli, Tiruvaikam …’ when it was sung again, started as ‘Second Tirunelli …”! She sang it hundred and one times and then closed her eyes. Santhy took up the priestess’ role and picked up the camphor-plate, saying, “Ammachi,  I will conduct the worship today. I love doing it, you know!”

After the lamp-worship was done and everyone had paid obeisance to the lit camphor, she went to her and lay on her stomach on a grass mat.

“So, Ammachi, Subrahmanyan has two wives? Who are they?”

“Valli and Tevayani.”

“Vishnu too has two wives. Also Ganapati.  Even among the Gods there seem to be more of women. When you die, Ammachi, the messengers from heaven will fight over your soul!”

She shut her eyes and replied, “What more do we want, dearie, just to go to heaven only?” She opened them. “Go have supper, girlie. Hey Matalee?”

Santhy turned around to see Malathy and was a bit surprised. She took Santhy’s hand and said, “Come, let’s have supper. You are laughing at the formal name Ammachi’s given me? Isn’t she old? The syllables get mixed up. Yeah, laugh and tumble all night thinking of that!”

The supper wasn’t so nice. The sambar had no chilly. The vegetables in the avial were half-cooked. The mango pieces in the pickle were ripe. The butter-milk was not sour enough. But Santhy showed no displeasure and finished supper somehow.

The two friends sat up late, talking. They got out the old group photos of the Women’s Club in college and discussed their classmates. Where were they all now? Putting her finger on a girl who was dressed like a movie star, Santhy said, “Ah! Here is Rachel! Last march, she had come to Thiruvananthapuram to write the English exam. On a Saturday. Ah the pangs of separation manifest by the time it was Monday! Don’t need a degree, she was moaning, just wanted to go back home to her husband!”

“Don’t tell me that,” said Malathy who could be relied upon to possess short summaries of everybody’s lives. “The tumult she had with that Krishnaswami! When they fixed this alliance, she wrote that she would kill herself! But in the hubbub of the honeymoon, he was forgotten. He is now after the Pathan girl.”

“Oh, do they have any other intention but have fun? But these she-donkeys can’t see that. Wretched lot! Malathy, want to hear something funny? That Rachel’s cousin Susan is a friend of mine. There’s an oldster in her office, some fifty years old. Eight kids, a Vellala man. One day he told her, ‘I lauvu you, kutty!’Lauvu indeed! Doesn’t even know how to say ‘love’! Terrible English, the whites will break their heads! We have named him ‘Gently lauver’!”

Malathy put the picture back on the wall, saying, “Listen, Santhy, remember, if we make fun of someone, you will receive it in double!”

“Really! Are human beings wooden dolls? It is fun to kick only air-filled balls! And everyone has the freedom of expression too!”

Malathy went over and sat near her. “But the way you laughed today in the station when that chap fell down was rather bad.”

“Ooh, this is awful! Wasn’t I laughing at Veronica’s clothes? And I am the one to laugh first if I fall! And last time, during the exhibition on the King’s birthday, just because some of us went on the merry-go-round, he and his friends made up such horrible tales! Today he fell on the floor before us seeking pardon for that wrong!”

“But shouldn’t you take people’s opinions seriously? Aren’t you a woman, Santhy?”

“No one need give me a man on that account. Nor do I need anyone’s good opinion.”

Not wanting to continue the conversation, Santhy extinguished the lamp and went to bed. Santhy on the sofa and Malathy on the floor.

After some time, Malathy asked, “Are you asleep, Santhy?”

“No”, replied Santhy in a low voice so that others would not be disturbed.

“Oh, a newspaper owner’s written to me asking if I can be an editor. I am wondering if I shouldn’t be nursing the soldiers?  Ah, the shadow of Florence Nightingale, the valiant wounded soldiers, they kissing the image of the Holy Mother … was just thinking of all that. But I don’t want to touch soldiers. Not any of this, teaching young women is the fun thing. The jingle of ornaments, fragrances, filling the air. Irrespective of whether the girls are butterflies or silkworms, they are far more pleasant sight!”

“Santhy, you aren’t thinking of all this, you are dreaming of it.”

“Really? When I did even fall asleep? Dreaming about what?”

“About sweet-sweet life!”

“You think my life right now is bitter? Aren’t you all envious of my ever-merry existence? I have no seething emotions that drain me; no crushing thoughts that weigh me down; no unattainable desires. I live my life day to day, happy with what I have. What life did you mean?”

“Married life. A couple’s.”

“Oho! That? Like Veronica says, My Jesus! I have decided to even think of it only after I turn twenty-five. And not just that, Malathy, the value of a thing increases when demand goes up. When you sincerely don’t want something, why carry the burden just to convince the world? Shouldn’t those who genuinely desire something be granted it first?”

The room fell silent.  Malathy’s question, naturally, led Santhy into another train of thought. She had also heard some stories about Malathy. But since she had not told her anything directly, she pretended not to know.

A sob rose from Malathy’s mat. Santhy realized that the stories were not just made-up tales. Trying to sound neutral, she said, “Malathy, did you hear, that English Hons. Chap Sadasivan got married recently – the younger sister of a friend of mine. He said he didn’t want the older sister. The intention of these types must be to fill our land, like Europe, with aging virgins.”

Malathy got up and sat next to Santhy’s pillow. “Santhy, these are evil fellows, wicked monsters, all!”

“Who all?”

“These-these-these …” She clenched her teeth. “These men.”

“Ayyo! We are dead! My dear, please don’t say such things aloud! Won’t they go for our necks! You think they can bear to hear the truth? Good! And indeed, Malathy, was not God himself partial in this? Is there any guarantee that if we were men we wouldn’t behave like them? Did you send him many letters? How did it all begin?”

“Enough to say, it just happened. Bad times, what else?”

“But why didn’t you even consider the fact that the price of paper is inordinately high?” There was not much sympathy in Santhy’s voice. “Why did you get yourself in this mess? Whatever his antics, you could have just rolled your eyes and pretend not to understand?”

“What to do when he wrote to me?”

“That is the easiest. Pretend as if it never reached you.”

“What if he stuffed it in my book?”

“Even then you could have acted as if you didn’t see it at all. And if he asked later, you could simply say, oh, yes, some paper. I threw it out because it looked useless.”

“No use saying all this now Santhy. I returned the book with a reply.”

“Ok, then be clear, that you were dying to write a love-letter. I am amazed how one can treat a man, a human being, as the very soul of one’ soul.  Isn’t perfection, completeness, what human beings ultimately desire? Won’t you see the imperfections as you grow closer? Won’t you be bored, feel repelled? Now he will keep all those letters to send them to your husband when you get married, Malathy. A joint hell will unfold after that. A Christian man would fry you in hell but keep quiet outside. Will a Nair’s brawn and his conceit allow that? They’ll be happy only after the whole house and neighbourhood are left stinking.”

“Me, marry again? My heart and all that I had, given away!”

“Tch! Don’t talk of the impossible! To a man as incomplete as us, we don’t give our all – we give just a teeny bit of ourselves telling them it is our ‘all’! We submit our all only to our Maker. This is just because we think — are these fellows not just human? Aren’t these poor creatures needy of life, of pleasure?”

Malathy sank her face into Santhy’s pillow and wept, sobbing loudly. Hearing someone stir in the other room, Santhy told her, “Here, get on this sofa and lie down.  We may wake someone with the noise. There’s a trick to speak without letting out the sound. Curl your fingers into a cylinder, one edge on your mouth and the other in my ear. How many times Sushama and I have tried this at night!”

Malathy narrated her love story at length. Santhy did not find it exciting. In the end she asked, “What all did he call you in his letters?”

“Angel, sweetheart, darling …” sobbed Malathy.

“Angel-Poonjal, the worm! And how did you address him?”

“I wouldn’t say anything. Just drew a line.”

“Why? Because Hindu dharma does not permit the woman to call her husband by his name?” Santhy was too amused. Catch hold of a fellow passing by, and dream all sorts of things! Are women such brainless dolls, really? Sensing that Santhy was laughing, Malathy said, “You are laughing, Santhy? Lucky woman! When I am weeping thus.”

It is very wrong to laugh when your friend is weeping. But will the funny thing cease to make you laugh even if you get scolded thus? Santhy saw only one way to wriggle out of this. She slipped off the sofa soundlessly.

She stayed motionless when Malathy called to her. Malathy was groping all over the sofa to find her and then Santhy heard her get up. She did not move from under the sofa; just clamped her hand on her mouth and stayed silent.

Malathy struck the match and Santhy jumped out from below the sofa. Her head hit its edge hard. By the time Malathy lit the lamp, there was Santhy sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall.

Seeing tears flow from Santhy’s eyes, Malathy wiped her own tears and said, “Why weep, Santhy? Our very lives are such – we are born to weep.”

Santhy wanted to check if her head was bruised and bleeding, the pain was that severe. But how could she? Wouldn’t the secret of those sympathetic tears be revealed before Malathy?

Seeing the light of the lamp. Syamala got up and walked into their room. Seeing Santhy’s pathetic pose, she went up to her and put her arms around her neck. Santhy told her, “Ca-mala, your aunt is trying to catch a cockroach I think! Go back to bed sweetie?” Suddenly she hit upon a way to end Malathy’s dramatic narration. “Or let Ca-malakkutty sleep next to me. I have the assurance that her recital is safely in the future, some ten or twelve years away!”

Frowning and rubbing her sore forehead, Santhy said, “God in heaven, terrible indeed this Womanly Birth! That wicked Sadasivan. Now this head is completely useless!”

 

(‘Streejanmam’, 1946)

 

 

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