The Veiled: Lalitambika Antharjanam

[This is an excerpt from my translation of her story included in the volume On the Far Side of Memory, New Delhi, OUP, 2018. ‘Moodupadathil’ is one of her masterful indictments of the unending agonies of Malayala brahmin women subjected to the most restrictive seclusion in the brahmin home, the illam. All these stories, however, desist from portraying these women as passive victims. Each of the tragic female protagonists in these stories show clear signs of agency: the tragedy, for Lalitambika, is not that they are devoid of agency.]


How thick, how opaque, this shroud. The form it hides – what does it look like? Young, old, beautiful, ugly, delicate, wasted? Not even a trace can be seen, not even a faint line. It sleeps peacefully upon the bed of dry darbha grass.  An oil-lamp flickers; it splatters hideous hues on the pitch-dark all around.

Grave silence; chilling quiet. Please, please – do not sully this stillness even with a sigh, no matter how sad you may be.

When she was awake, she never saw the world. Never liked din and bustle. Her heartbeats, however loud they may have been, were pressed so inward that no one heard them. And now – in this last moment – why trouble her with unsolicited expressions of solidarity?

Peace. Contentment. Tranquility –

Now she has everything that she never had in her life. Malice will not make her weep anymore. Unkind words will not hurt her; authority will not strangle her. Peace. Eternal freedom! Sleep, sister, blissfully, serenely, sleep today for the first time.

In the next room, people murmur. A few sobs, half-hearted. A mere ritual. She never heard a kind word in her life. And now they praise her.

“Paapi is lucky. Didn’t she die with her tali intact?”

The sound of the mango-tree being chopped down in the south-side yard. The pyre readied near it. Everyone was in a hurry to be done with the last rites. As if the house was relieved of a burden – like when a girl is given away in marriage.

Why is that I alone feel so terribly disturbed? The woman who died – who was freed – who was she to me? Nobody, just a neighbor. An acquaintance – distantly related, perhaps. But what is this thing called kinship? Is it just worldly, familial tie? Hearts that find each other because their souls – their inner senses – bond, are they not kin to each other? If that is so, there can be no closer kin in this world than this young woman and me. But who knows of such ties? Except the two of us – and now just me-

That tender heart was revealed to me to its very depths – the deep wounds, the scalded flesh, the sores. Even some of sweetly-painful memories secretly thrust underneath the agonies.

Forgive me, sister! I do not have your consent to reveal them. Even in this state, you would not forgive me if I wronged you thus. But let me remember once more the suppressed, heartrending history that is yours, even as my welling heart is seared by countless emotions! It will never hurt your soul. Except raise it to a sacred, pure realm –

Hidden within Woman’s heart are secrets that even the final all-consuming flames of the funeral pyre cannot reveal. Yielding to the hostile force — of religion – of community – even fate, the laments without tears, the life without breath – like a volcano that does not emit smoke, they implode.

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