Realism: Lalitambika Antharjanam

[This is an early version of my translation of this story included in the volume titled On the Far Side of Memory, New Delhi: OUP, 2018]

[This brilliant take-down of  the hypocrisies of men who advanced progressive realism in Malayalam literature of the 1940s, brought Lalitambika many enemies and the equivalent of ‘trolling’ those days, in a ‘reaction-story’ by none other than Takazhi Sivasankara Pillai, who accused her of sexual frigidity]

He was a Realist poet. Not just that, he wrote short-stories as well. His thoughts on story-telling and its devices were all very novel. He was dead against the morals of the times and entrenched economic relations.  Above all, he questioned the sacredness of the male-female relationship and even the durability of marriage. Human beings with their straight spines did not need ways more decorous than those of the four-legged dog or cat. Morals, indeed! The height of foolishness! Decrepit dogma; crumbling palm-leaf-scripture!  Lovers of freedom cannot but consign it to the flames! Maybe because he was so young, wherever it turned, that Realist pen of his  sought out only brothels and lechers’ haunts. They were all described in their stark nakedness. Realist description would need this to be realist, would it not?

But there are some real experiences that humans choose to hide from plain sight.  The very vagueness of such hiding is what makes  them valuable.  Each one peeks through the veil; the thought that only one could see it gives a sense of pride! Simple reality and the naked truth, what pleasure do they hold? Does not the beauty of art arise from the cloak of artifice?

Our poet will never ever agree with this. His protagonists, male and female, will not, either. His insistent view is that there has never been, and never will be, in this world, a chaste woman or a moral man. And besides – he holds – it is Man’s – the community’s – narrow selfishness that draws boundaries around the male-female tie and gives it the name of marriage.

Many stories emerged from his pen. Many poems as well. The talented young poet had no trouble gaining fame. Admirers, of course, are always followed by opponents. Anyway, after many days of liberated existence, he decided to marry. That too, a nubile young girl from a respectable family … a unkissed blossom!

He wrote many love songs.  For days together, they flitted about lightly. Finally, the wedding . Sathy – the mythical Sathy, the Epitome of Chastity — that was her name. Completely contrary to his views. Some people asked:

“Why can’t we change this old-fashioned name? – let’s give her a new name – Ganika, perhaps?”

“Sathy is a pleasant name. Easy on the tongue. Just two syllables,” he said. “Besides, what is in a name? What you do is more important.”

“So marriage is a trap, didn’t you say? How come you ended up there?” His friends teased.

He had his reply: “Could also be to rescue someone else from a trap too …?”

Sathy was a pretty, energetic girl and with some education. Her speech and manner was also pleasant. And she could sing. On the whole, a charming, pleasant young woman.

Their house was full of guests. Quite animated, all the time – music, readings.  Our urbane young poet had a fine time for quite a while. It threw a pleasant light upon all his stories and poems of that time. Paris-style descriptions of love-games. But this is not a chapter that lasts very long. The rumbling in the stomach is a difficult problem. Even the honeymoon can’t help waning in its shadow.

Gradually, after much effort, he got a job with a newspaper. And so he had to now stay away from home. It was then that he chanced to take another look, despite himself, at the sincerity of his moral theories. Sathy agreed fervently. She was his most ardent admirer. She said:

“I was attracted not really by your looks, but by your views. A free and unburdened life – what a proposal!  You’ve thrown open a path for truly equal male-female relationships – you are truly admirable!”

Earlier, he used to be mightily pleased by this certificate. But these days, things had begun to change.

“Woman – the married woman – has to be a bit unfree, Sathy! That is the law of Nature. Also, all that is written can’t be practised, can it?”

“In that case, speak only of what you can do!”

“What, then, would be left to write about? The poet’s interest is in what is, not what should be. The truth is that there is no such thing as idealism. But sometimes it becomes necessary.”

“If that is the case, why take so much trouble to argue?” Sathy would punch right back. “Wouldn’t it be enough to let each person do as he or she pleases?  Let there be no restrictions at all! That is the reason, is it not, why your characters are so lively?”

What was he to say? He saw his own artistic offspring sticking their tongues out at him. What else to do but retire from the debate, wounded? He found it unbearable that Sathy agreed with his views on chastity and morality. If only she had opposed him … deep in his heart he wished so. She – if only she alone — did not read his work …but it was precisely the stories and poems that had drawn Sathy to him. No artist can deny his own work and survive.

He wrote more stories. The wife of a powerful and high-placed official – she was his beloved. He loved and trusted her. But was often forced to stay away because of his duties. She was in the way of the handsome, able-bodied cook. When the husband fussed over the child born to the cook mistaking it to be his offspring, the cook laughed at him, and so did the world.

The story received many compliments. And a fat remuneration, besides. As soon as he reached home, Sathy told him with a smile:

“I loved your story. It is your masterpiece.”

“Really? Why?” He too smiled.

“Why? … This is true Realism. It happens in so many homes. Is it not so, Nanu?”

She called their cook to be witness. The ignoramus stared; he hadn’t the foggiest.

“Why do you have to pass an opinion on every single thing?” Our poet shouted. “I will write this and more to make a living; you don’t have to make a creed out of it.” He glowered with rage. She was surprised: “Why do you write, if not for someone to read? If you write, I will read it like anyone else and enjoy it too. And express my views as well. Why are you angry only at me? I think I know why …”

“If you know why, that’s enough! Be careful … I am not like the big man in the story… I … I…”

He was breathless with fury. And she, with astonishment … “What kind of a man is this? Reading his story, that’s a fault too! Well, the same old story – all men are like this. They think something. Do another. And make speeches of something else … Sathy thought silently.

She didn’t say a word about stories after that.

When he left the newspaper office to return home that evening, it was very late. He had never been so late. He felt a terrible unease and quickened his pace again and again. Why, he didn’t know. A nagging suspicion had been weighing him down lately. A doubt … just a slight wariness … nothing beyond that. The cook Nanu fell victim to it, and took a beating before he left. The same fate befell his replacement. The third appointee was a woman. Sathy dismissed her. Now a fourth entrant, an old woman, helps her with the housework. But the schoolmaster, the tenant next door … does that amiable, good-looking young man stand at the window all ears and eyes, just to listen to Sathy singing? … Doesn’t  he visit her in his absence? Don’t they exchange stolen glances?  … The old woman is a crook. Cross-examine her, but she won’t spill a word … and isn’t she in need of Sathy’s patronage? Maybe she’s the go-between as well!

He reached home. The door was securely shut – locked from inside. But he lingered for some time for no reason, all ears. Wasn’t someone whispering inside? … In a very low voice? … Yes … that  didn’t sound like a snore. A scene which he had described many times reappeared in the imagination of this short-story writer. It made him clench his teeth in sheer frustration.

Someone was opening the back door of the house, very quietly. He woke up from his musings. His suspicion had been true! Aha! Had his writings boomeranged on him as fate? Were the very scenes now unfolding in reality? Through the narrow gap, a misshapen thing, its head completely covered, had slipped into the darkness outside.  He ran, twirling the stick that he had been carrying so fast that it hummed.

“Stop there … you … stop! I am going to catch you barehanded today.  Not just you but also her … the whore! She and her story-reading … her opinions …”

The chase went on for quite a bit. The neighbours woke at the up at the commotion. In the end, without the resistance or struggle that he had expected, the writer brought into light the character he knew so well:

“I’ll show you … I know well your dandy pottu, your winking and humming …. Let her … let her come … Hey, you whore!”

The din had woken Sathy; she was up and out. But except for the puzzlement that the scene had induced and the fact that she was sleepy, there was no hint of agitation on her face. Even that brief haze cleared soon; her face now had a faint sarcastic smile. Mad with rage, he was roaring at her:

“Vile harlot! Did you think I did not know? Or that I was foolish enough to let you gallivant like I write in my stories? … Laughing! So shameless … arrogant to the core …. Alright, first this fellow … then you!”

He directed a heavy blow at the figure trembling in his grip. It slid away and so the blow fell on the cloth that covered its head.  The cloth flew off … “ooh … ooh … I took only just a single measure of rice … and that too just to get some areca-nut to chew … don’t kill me sir …  will be gone tomorrow …”

The character which had transmogrified into the old woman of a cook was pleading and praying … the writer was stunned … “Ah, who is this? You? I thought … Oh, so you steal rice?”

“Oh no, no … never …just today, such a mistake … never again … please don’t beat up this old woman, my dear sir …”

She quaked with fear … and he, with shame. “Alright, leave! Don’t repeat this. I’ll forgive you for now.”

He let her go. Sathy doubled up with laughter seeing him creep back in, shivering.

“Aha, don’t let him slip away so easily … the wife’s lover-boy … give him a gift or two. Or at least write a story tomorrow …”

The watching crowd laughed. The poet laughed too. But it was a decidedly mortified laugh.

Everyone soon left. When things became quiet, he took Sathy’s hand and said:

“Sathy, forgive me. I was unfairly suspicious of you.”

The wife replied calmly: “You should not be asking forgiveness of me; you should beg forgiveness of the literary world! You were suspicious. Not just of me, but of Womankind itself. It may be true that goodness is rare. But that does not mean that badness is universal. The heroine in literature may be the Ganika; but you decided that Sathy will do for the community. This is the failure that befalls the Realists who are against morality. They can only point to the badness; they can never point the way towards goodness. You may decry morality, but your self-interest will not let you do it, my master!”

The poet thought about it for a long time. He then said: “You are right, Sathy. The world is rooted in self-interest. That is what shapes morality as well. Like individuals, communities too have their own interests. Their own rules. Neither men nor women have been able to defy them till now; nor will they be able to do it tomorrow. Given that, all the writing I produced ignoring these rules of the world calling it Realism …”

He made a heap of his favourite Realist writings and set it on fire. Seeing them burn, Sathy smiled, relieved:

“This too is Realism.”

[‘Realism’ , in Lalitambika Antarjanathinte Kathal Sampoornam, Kottayam : DC Books, 2009, 302-6]


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