Poor Things!: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika

1

The bus stopped with a grr…. Sumati strained to look outside, all around. A slim good-looking young man with a blue coat and dark glasses and a thin hairline of  a moustache on his face ran up to her and said, “Oh, how long have I been waiting! Get off here, won’t you? Did you visit me even once after passing by so many times? It can’t be, this time.”

“I won’t be able to come this time, by any calculation,” Sumati held out a newspaper-wrapped packet. “Here’s the gown. Thanks for lending it to me for a week. The convocation went great. Why didn’t you come?”

“Will tell you later,” said Surendran Nair impatiently. “Do get off the bus now!”

“Don’t force me to do what’s not possible,” said Sumati. “How little do we know each other? If my father gets to know that I got off to go to a man friend’s house…”

“How is he to know? I will take you there before it strikes four in the evening.”

“I’ve got other problems. The ticket is till Nagercoil. And I have no money for another.”

“We’ll find a way for all that. Just think that the time between now and later when you get on a bus again was a dream.”

“The dream is possible on your side too. Just think that I am at your place with you till four.”

Surendran Nair did not reply. Some passengers got off; others got in. The porter lifted their luggage up on the luggage-carrier and got down the step-ladder. The driver glanced at the bus, threw away the smouldering bidi, and got into his seat. The conductor peeped in with his ticket-bundle and fare-bag. Surendran Nair said nervously, “Get off quickly. The bus is about to leave. That car over there is one I rented.”

“Not now,” Sumati said seriously. “Another time.”

His face fell. He had not expected such firm rejection. Seeing the bus-driver place his hand on the steering wheel he went pale. Noting that thwarted expression, Sumati smiled victoriously and said, “My hand aches from holding this. Take it quickly or I will drop it.”

He stood still, gazing at her unwaveringly. The bus began to move; the conductor jumped in. But Surendran Nair did not move or take the packet from her. The vehicle moved past him. Sumati put her head out of the window and looked at him. He stood there like a statue.

In a second, her decision changed. “Please stop the bus”, she cried, and the driver turned to look, frowning, while he stopped the bus. Sumati got off with the packet in her hand and went to him smilingly. “Ok, it’s me who failed. Will you take this at least now?”

Surendran Nair kept looking silently at the bus. When it disappeared on the road without her, he turned to her jubilantly and said, “Now I am ready to carry any burden!”

2

Sumati did not even notice the red hue that had spread all over the eastern horizon. She and Surendran slowly climbed down the steps behind the backdoor. Her face was paler than the moon setting in the western sky. It looked sleepy, dull; her eyes were sunk in their wrinkled, smudged sockets. She walked as if she were only partially conscious -like she was sleepwalking.

The places through which she had walked full of energy and joy yesterday now seemed to mock her. The blades of the grass lining the path were still asleep inside the mosquito-nets woven by the spiders. Sumati shuddered briefly. Seeing her pause with dull eyes firmly shut, Surendran asked, “Not feeling good walking so early in the morning? Didn’t I tell you that you could start later?”

She took his hand and asked, “Tell me, how did that lamp go off suddenly last night?”

Tilting his head casually to one side, he replied, “The kerosene these days is full of crude oil. Can just die any moment.”

 Sumati said, letting go of his hand, as though to herself, “All human beings are weak. In some circumstances, even the strongest may give in. When will they learn that?” 

When they neared the main road, he asked, “Can you make it on your own from here? If people see the two of us together they will make up tales.”

Sumati shook her head in agreement, impassionate. As she walked on, he called from behind, “Do write when you reach? Or no, I will write first.” She did not utter a word.

 Not knowing what specific form the danger was about to take, Sumati agonized for quite a few days. After some time, she calmed down.

A month and a half later, she got mail from him.

Anxious, she tore the cover and found two letters. The printed one left her face bloodless. It was his wedding invitation! What women consider to be their greatest wealth – their chastity – is it just a plaything for men? Hey, but why grieve? Didn’t she know earlier that men are selfish cheats? She pushed the invitation to a corner of the table and picked up the other letter. Apologies and explanations! Sumati could not help laughing. Though it is a woman’s heart that works better, is it not foolish of men to think that her brains are nothing but common clay? She did not bother to read all of it.

———-

For the past four months, Sumati had been staying with her Uncle in Thiruvananthapuram. Both his daughters had died, and so he had brought her over as his adopted child. Since she was now in the capital city, her plan was to study Law from the next year.

One day her younger brother who was visiting them told her, “Akkan, your ex-classmate Surendran Nair and his wife live somewhere around here. He was with me right now, till the gate. I invited him in but he said he’d come another day.”

Sumati dropped the volume she was reading – Vendetta – and pulled out a knife from the drawer. “Look, “she said, “I bought this yesterday when I went with Uncle to see the coconut gardens at Karakulam. How sharp it is! That place is famous for sharp knives!”

It drizzled that night. When they reached home from the cinema hall after the evening’s first show, her brother asked, “Why didn’t you not talk with Surendran Nair, Akkan? The poor chap was looking at you as he spoke with me! Said that he was going to see the second show.”

Rubbing her foot hard on the coir-doormat for some time, she replied, “I don’t think I recognized him.”

When Surendran Nair set off for home after the second show, it was past two at night. He was surprised to see the light in Sumati’s house even at that hour. He stood by the gate for a few moments, sighed, and walked on.

Suddenly, he turned, hearing the gate open, and was stunned by the sight of that slender body covered from top to toe in a silk sari.

What she did then was totally unexpected. Stabbed at hard, Surendran Nair collapsed on his back.  Deep astonishment left him dumb. She raised her hand again but between the murder weapon and his fallen body she saw the piteous face of a child widow. That weakened her hand.

Sumati threw away the knife and replacing the sari-edge on her head, snarled, “Chhi, you mangy cur! Get up, be off, at once. Don’t give my hand further work!”

————–

Sumati sat on the railing beside the artificial lake in front of the art gallery at the Museum.  She looked closely at the reflection of her face in the water. What was special about it that was making the rich and well-educated Gangadharan Pillai bother her with a wedding proposal? Ridiculous weakness, what else!

“Sumati Amma, who are you waiting for?” At that question, Sumati turned her head to look. Yes, that was Pillai. He said, “The whole world praises you. I didn’t think you were so smart! Are you now getting ready to become a prominent lawyer? In that case, I wish sincerely that you become one!”

Sumati stayed silent for a while, and then said, “The hopes one has while still a student are often upset by the practicalities of life. Is it not the student who believes that the Principal and the Dewan himself are below him who ends up pressing the feet of a peon with a salary of ten rupees?”

“Yes,” Pillai agreed, and pointing to a group of young people in the distance, said, “Surendran Nair – in that group – people say there’s never been a student as good as he – look at him now? He married an officer’s daughter hoping that it would help him ascend in life. But the officer died soon quite unexpectedly. Today he looks like the worst dullard there ever was.” He lowered his voice, “look, they are talking about us.”

Catching hold of her heart which was starting on a journey into the past, she asked, “Talk what?”

“The world eyess our relationship with suspicion.”

“The poor things!” Sumati laughed. “What for?”  Pillai was silent for some time now; he stood staring at the water. “Why do you act as though you understand nothing, Sumati Amma?” he finally asked.

“Aren’t women fools by nature?”

“Why is it that you don’t like me at all?” His voice was that of an importunate lover.

“Sad! What dislike do I harbor?”

“Then what?” he continued, “That I am not rich enough, or my social standing isn’t … what is the snag?”

“Am I crazy to say that someone who’s from such an eminent family has no wealth?” She was smiling, yet serious. “Why is someone who earned the MA and ML degrees trying to court failure in his life?”

“Leave my problems alone! I have been asking you so long. Tell me what the glitch is?”

“Didn’t I tell you? My Uncle does not want me to marry.”

“That I will solve.”

“But that’s not the real problem,” she found another excuse. “I am an extreme women’s libber.”

“I am the sort who respects such women.”

“Don’t change you words later.”

“Certainly not.”

“I won’t do anything that will bring dishonor. So don’t try to control my likes.”

“No, and you can also rule me if you like.”

“Chhe, that queenly throne does not look dignified to me!”

“Now what’s the hurdle? Is there someone between us?”

Sumati laughed and turned her gaze to the water.  She saw the images of many worth and unworthy suitors from the past there. Still smiling, she raised her head and said, “The man who makes me his wife won’t be easy of mind.”

She got up. He followed her asking, “So, shall I speak with your Uncle?”

“Do as you wish,” she sounded as though she had given up. “Women may be able to desist from accepting love and praise, but they are not strong enough to refuse those.”

————-

For a long time Sumati sat motionless, looking long at the letter Surendran Nair had sent her. Like he said in it, he had indeed done her a great favour.  If he has said while in the hospital, that he knew who the attacker was, where would she have been now? The knife she had so foolishly flung by the roadside, its maker, and including her Uncle and brother, how many would have been made into witnesses? The poor man – he did not say that.

Sumati saw that scene in the hospital in her mind’s eye. To the doctor who stood bent towards the young man covered with bandages on his chest, he closes his tired eyes and says, “Somebody stabbed me by mistake.” He lies deliberately only to make sure that the owner of the face he saw so clearly would not end up in prison.

But what was the purpose of this letter? What’s done is done.  Today she was a married woman.  She did not regret it. Surendran was at fault there. Human beings sometimes end up acting against their wishes, indeed! Why does he write, after such a long time, that even the scar left by that stabbing is pleasing to him? Just selfishness – another attempt to weaken her heart, yes — after all, is not diversity the chief source of pleasure in life? But now her husband’s honour too was in her hands. Did he wish to make a fool of her again? The pathetic fellow!

She read the letter again and held it over the lit lamp. “What are you burning?” Pillai came into the room. With no change in expression, Sumati said, “Oh, a letter. Why should we let out other people’s secrets?”

‘Yes. Aren’t the secrets of others just like our own secrets?”

That was a loaded statement. Sumati looked at her husband, surprised. He pulled a chair forcefully, sat down in it, and asked, “Don’t you know that Surendran Nair?”

Her heart now grew a little afraid. But she did not stop smiling and looking at him. He asked again, “You don’t know him? Haven’t seen him?”

Holding the charred remains of Surendran Nair’s love letter, she asked, “Did you forget that you pointed him out to me at the park?”

“You haven’t seen him earlier?”

“Maybe. Since we have been in this city together, yes.”

Sumati blew the ashes out through the window and sat on a chair. She quickly charted her plan of action. Why prove wrong the old song that men sing, about women’s profuse talent in the art of acting? “I know Surendran Nair. Have been to his house too, have stayed there. That was my choice. Did I come to you and beg to accept such a woman? After following me around so long and getting what you want, now…”

Her sense of freedom urged her to hit back with a barrage of such retorts. But at the same time, life-experience advised – wait craftily, get rid of troubles tactfully.

Without showing any apprehension, Sumati picked up the paper cover with Surendran Nair’s handwriting and held it over the flame. Her easy expression enraged him. “Didn’t you learn anything in college?”

“There was no student named Surendran Nair in my class.”

“Maybe not in your class, but surely in your college. You’re clever with words, aren’t you?”

“Isn’t that why you blessed me in the old days that I will become a valiant lawyer?

He was furious. “That valour need not be shown here. Here I am the husband and you are the wife!”

Sumati who was depositing the ashes in the ash-tray laughed mockingly as she said, “What did you say then? What do you say now? Is not Man the very idol of selfishness? Once he gets what he wants, he changes tune. I thought just now – that a man’s heart changes just like a chameleon’s skin colour adjusts to its surroundings. As far as the woman is concerned, Man is synonymous with Hubris.”

“Stop! If this speech continues …”

“ …you’ll end up praising me! Did we not meet first on a stage where speeches were made?”

Pressing her left elbow on the table and supporting her head with her palm, Sumati kept looking at her husband, unshaken.  He was utterly beside himself now. “Have you not gone to Surendran Nair’s house?” he shouted. “Haven’t you stayed there overnight? Who knows where all you went later, and what all you did! And look at her face? You twisted me around your finger didn’t you? I heard it all, in detail. You, nothing but just a…”

Sumati jumped up and threw the chair down forcefully with her right hand. Her face was burning with anger. “HOW DARE you shout at me at some wretch’s word? If you are so ready to listen to lies, what all will not people tell you! How many witnesses will appear! Will even Surendran Nair not agree! Will that fellow lose anything from that? Excellent work! Ah! How brave! A man who goes about eager to collect lies about his own wife! What a loving husband! Mind you, if you are going to start calling me names because some idiot of a passer-by said something to you, there’s going to be nothing less than murder in this house!” Sadness now commingled in her expression. “If you have your sights on another woman, just spit that out, and I will make way. No need to take to slander like this if that’s what it is. How sad! If it were my father or uncle, would they believe such lies? They would have knocked out the teeth of the chap who said it. Even if you had any love for your wife, you should have remembered your own honour!” Sumati covered her face with her hands sobbing. “The husband I got after such a long wait – how marvelous! A man who knows no love, with no sense of honour, no masculine dignity; how insulting even to me! Oh God!”

Sumati fell on the table face down, weeping loudly.

Gangadharan Pillai stood petrified, hearing from his own wife about his lack of love and masculine dignity. Sumati’s loud wails had left him dumbstruck.

He leaned on the wall and was left looking at her dumbly, his face a distinct yellow.

The poor man!

[Pavangal!, 1943]

Leave a Reply