A Companion for the Night: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika

Begging in those areas to collect a sum of fifteen rupees for her daughter’s dowry, the woman came to us too. We were sitting in the porch chatting and laughing away. She put the tray filled with betel-leaves and areca-nuts in front of us, folded her hands in salutation, and said, “This is for a poor girl’s de-flowe’ing – please help. I’m the sist’r of ‘anuman ‘mpandaram who comes here.”

“Remembered Hanuman at the very sight of you. What likeness!” One of us, a mischievous woman, wisecracked.

The poor woman did not notice that her ugliness was being made fun of. Instead she gave us a certificate for our benevolence towards dependents. We then turned to her as though she were a student attending a viva voce exam. She gave us detailed answers. The girl is seventeen; the groom is forty-five. This is his third marriage. The other two women left him. Such hussies! Some women cannot live quietly and meekly. Anyhow, this is a good alliance. He has a job at ‘Batt’ry’ [factory] – is an officer receiving a weekly wage, not just a worker.

At this, the mischievous one remarked again, “Works in a battery! He must a great hero then! The girl’s luck!”

“Luck? Ve’y well! Her grea’ goo’lluck! No’ ‘cause of her merit but ‘cause o’ the goodnes’ of m’ ‘eart – if’ yo’ do big’ penance, wou’ yo’ get sommun so goo’? Isn’t that why eve’ywun’s so envi’us? Oh that her fortun’s turnin’ is makin’ tha naiborhud baw-il an’ simme’ with envy! Leave alon’ tha’ our own people aren’t helpin’. They ar’ tryin’ to eve’ dissuade him! I suffe’ed th’ pangs of chil’bir’h all of ‘leven tim’s, bu’ now hav’ olly thiswun to do my deat’-rituals! My wis’ is I die in peace afte’ I fin’ her a refuge!”

Saying thus the woman began to wipe her eyes and blow her nose. We guessed that a new tear-jerker of a paragraph was about to begin. The trick was to soften us all and then take advantage. Is it not my fate that I have to beg thus for money? If Hanuman Pandaram was alive, would he have not conducted his niece’s wedding with pomp and pageantry? This girl, she was so precious to him. He never let her feet touch the floor! When she was a child, if you made her wear the Hanuman mask, she would sing and dancelike him! There was a reason why he was so fond of her – she was his ‘spitti’ ‘mage’, truly.

“If she was truly that,” the mischievous girl cut in, “then that forty-five-year-old chap is broad-minded indeed. She must look like Hanuman!”

Isn’t fifteen rupees a small sum for a girl’s wedding? If we don’t contribute to increasing the population and the poverty of this society at least monetarily, that would be a sin. Good! If you die with your virginity intact, your soul would wander in hell. Some amount must be given.

Thus I gained eight-annas-worth of merit by participating in the virtuous deed of conducting a poor girl’s de-flowering. Do come sometimes and let me know the news, I enjoined. Since I paid an advance subscription of eight annas, I have the right to know the news before it went cold, truly?

The next time I saw both mother and daughter was at a friend’s house. They were the dependents of her family. The bride wasn’t very pretty but she had a certain allure. The fresh look of a seventeen-year-old. In response to my question why they didn’t visit sooner after the wedding, the mother said that they couldn’t come because he had ‘neith’ at the ‘batt’ry’.

“‘Neith?’”, my friend asked, thinking that she meant ‘weaving’ – that’s what neith means in Malayalam. “So he is a weaver? Didn’t you say he was working in a factory?”

“He’s still there,” this time it was the new bride herself who spoke. “Last week in the batt’ry he had to work at night – that is, after dark. So he’s stuck at home the whole day and the rule’s that I shouldn’t step out – the devil’s rule, the kaalan’s!”

Hear the sweet names the new bride coos at her groom during the honeymoon time – kaalan! The God of Death himself! I was amused.

But at the rest of what she had to say, my smile vanished.  She had only terrible misery and want to talk of. No tender coyness, sweet phrases half-uttered. Talk that made you think that the honeymoon and the ecstasies of love were just the figments of the poets’ imagination. She showed no unbearable hatred when she recounted her husband’s failings, but no love either. Her anger was all towards the ‘thieving old woman’ who had led her into this. Not only did she hand him the fifteen rupees she’d got from all the begging, the man also took from her the fifty rupees she had saved from pounding rice. ‘She’ll dress up for me anyway, and so I’ll get her something good” he had said. After the wedding, she had tried to bring it up. But he had snapped, “Oh, so you want to dress up like the dancin’-girls and have a fine time?” and grabbed her by the hair. She didn’t ask a thing after that. He gave her just enough for food each week and even that had to be shared with his children from earlier alliances sometimes. She hadn’t liked him right from the beginning? But who cared for a girl’s likes and dislikes? Mother insisted. One of his aunts just manipulated her. That was her trick to get them into deep trouble; that woman couldn’t stand the fact that they were managing to eat two square meals a day working hard.

The mother kept silent through the daughter’s talk. This crazy girl, what does she know? That was her expression. My friend and I looked at each other and smiled. In the eyes of the mother, the villains were those who tried to block the alliance; to the daughter, those who aided it were the blackguards.

When they left, I said, “How sad! I too am a guilty party in this. How not to pay up something when asked to help Hanuman Pandaram’s niece get married?”

“The thieves! They have nothing to do with Hanuman or Bali. Go to each house, change the story using the appropriate caste. People give only when their favourite kinds of dependents are mentioned.” My friend said.

“The poor girl,” I was sympathetic. “Paid all that cash to get a man to grab her by the hair.”

“No, that’s not it,” My friend argued. “He’s a smart fellow. That’s why he took the cash meant to buy ornaments early! If you get gold for it and then have to resell it, you will get only half the amount. No loss this way. And what are we to do if some husbands prefer to enjoy their wives’ natural beauty?”

“Stop fooling,” I replied. “If things are so bad now, how long will it last?”

“Till one of them dies.” My friends sounded as if she was making fun of my sympathy. “Will continue like this until all this crying and moaning and complaining becomes a habit. After that they can’t get along without it. Now watch when the children start arriving. That will need a separate Census Officer! All of that is God’s mystery, right?  A fine God! The mystery that we demand and that which destroys us! One gets nervous when they become pregnant; we have to provide then with everything, right? For these people, pregnancy is as simple as bending down and picking up a piece of waste. Those who work hard have greater procreative abilities and easier childbirth, you must have heard? Just you wait, after twenty years – or even fifteen – you will see her come here with the betel-tray begging like that thieving old crone!”

I said nothing. Just partook the feast of knowledge that my friend had so generously served.

After that I saw our new bride only after a year or so. She came to my house holding a babe, nursing it at her breast. A chubby fair baby girl. Two months old, she said, but it looked six months at least. No sign of poverty or neglect anywhere on her. The baby’s eyes and brows were darkened with kohl, and she had a black mark drawn on her forehead. Her curly hair was well-combed and she wore a thin silk baby-frock. So pretty, you would want to hold it! But the mother looked disheveled, with stinking clothes and scabies sores on her hands, and I suppressed that desire.

Seeing that little babe smiling at things seen and unseen, the corner of her little mouth streaked with a white mark, from her mother’s breast milk, I felt more pity than affection. Six months from now, the breast milk which went waste now, will not be enough to fill her stomach. It will become nothing but a wasted, thin little creature sucking her mother’s thinned-out milk from above her pregnant belly.

Then it will be the next child’s turn. And it will proceed thus. And then, after some ten years, the mother will leave the girl at home and start begging, like my friend said, with the betel tray for her wedding expenses. Then a few months later, that new bride – this comely infant – will bring a child, she herself clad in stinking garments and with diseased skin. That’s a trivial incident recurring over generations. They do not know to give it the seriousness of the conscious fulfillment of social and bodily needs; they know only the mechanical lightness of a local observance rooted in superstition conducted irresponsibly… when my thoughts reached this far, she said, “God will help you if you give eight kasu so that I can buy the baby some bananas.”

I earned eight-kasu-worth of God’s help and asked her about the baby’s father.

Complaints ten-fold higher than what I had heard earlier poured forth from her now. And much glory to God who had created such men! Offspring, to him, were not wealth but burdens, apparently. A fellow who already had seven or eight kids would feel just that? He’s just a pain and nothing else. Won’t die and go to hell any sooner? No!  Will he get the hell out at least? No, indeed! He now gets food at half the cost of eating in a hotel and has a wife to use for pleasure and to take care of him besides! One could bear all this, but the swearing and the beating at night was too much to take. Because of that nobody would even glance their way if they screamed in the face of some danger! Her mother had died and she had to sit next to the body till day broke. When he saw that she was breathing her last, he just left. Not a trace of human pity in him! If he had it, would he not have bought the baby a scrap of cloth when he heard it cry itself hoarse? The only good thing is that God does not abandon the poor. Look at the frock she’s wearing. Judge Kesavan vakil’s family gave it. It is only because of their charity that the mother and child survived the birth.

This was followed by a description of the ‘Judge Vakil’. I could not make out who this dignitary seemingly blessed with his designations of the past, present and future tagged to his name was. Perhaps a vakil who was elevated to Judge-hood, or a judge who came down to a lawyer’s profession. However that was, the speed with which the woman’s antagonism with God soon changed to praise left me amazed. It seemed to me that these people, lacking stable ideals and principles, attachments and detachment, would quickly submit to any circumstance, with no fierce resistance for sure. All that she went on to say strengthened this view and confirmed my friend’s words. When she was about to leave, this is what she said about her husband: “And, hope God helps in one more thing. That the father stay alive till this girl grows up and a man comes for her. Even if you get nothing but blows, shouldn’t there be an owner around, for staying together at night? Like Mother used to say long back, if there’s no man in the house, will people around let live a female drudge who’s all alone?”

(Anthikkoottu, 1951)

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