Half- Chaste: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika

Half-Chaste

Like every day, she had been walking alone down the Lovers’ Lane in the Museum Gardens at Thiruvananthapuram. She flinched when she saw the person walking towards her smile. Was it a post-meeting ritual, or a pre-meeting overture, she could not make out. She felt that it was best to walk past him with a puzzled look in her eyes as if trying to recall. He made out that trick. With the happiness of someone who had stumbled upon what he had been looking for, he asked, “Don’t you remember me? Did you forget – you sang at a meeting at the Vijaya Tutorial College some days back?”

“Oh! The Principal!” She paused to exclaim.”I tend to forget people very fast; but I do make friends sooner. But it isn’t fair to forget a Principal, such an important job!”

Thinking that the pleasantries were done, she moved on, but he now walked with her. “Oh, yes indeed, so easy to reach that position this way. Maybe my fate to become a Principal in my horoscope is getting knocked off thus!”

For courtesy’s sake, she pretended to laugh at the joke. But she didn’t like him walking beside her. So she thought of a way to get rid of this nuisance without being rude.

She stopped when they reached the otters’ residence in the Zoo. He too stopped like a bogie connected to an engine. She bent down and picked up a stone, threw it up and caught it in the other hand, and looked in turn at the man who was staring quite fixedly at her and the otter who had started a low snarl sensing human presence. Then, throwing the stone absently at the otter, she said, “My companions have gone ahead agreeing to wait at the Museum. So now I have to take this path there.”

“That’s fine,” he said, ready to show the way ahead. “I can go that way too.”

The two walked on the path silently. She had not come across such instantly-fastening friends. Still, she felt reluctant to openly express distaste. It is that failing in my behavior that spoils everything always, she told herself.

A twig by the path got caught in her sari. She tried to kick it off unsuccessfully. Thinking that she could make use of the situation, she remarked, “Chhi, what a bother, and won’t leave too? Won’t let me walk in peace!”

Those words roused him. He paused and quickly said, “Oh, I just remembered I have to meet someone. Forgot that when I said I’ll come up to the Museum!”

She felt relieved. But then he continued, “Do you come here every day?”

“Sometimes,” she replied cautiously, “not really regular.”

She took two steps forward, stopped, turned, and asked, “What is your name?”

“Divakaran Nair.”

“Just asked, no other reason. It happens that stories get shaped if I even just exchange a few words with a man. If tomorrow such a story arises, I won’t have to feel foiled not knowing who that person is!”

———————–

When she went there the next day, the acquaintance from the day before was already waiting for her, sitting on the handrail near the otters’ bedchamber. “The song that day was stupendous,” he said, “I forgot to compliment you!”

“You didn’t have to wait here to say that,” she said, not wanting to go away without a single word. “Not hearing it yesterday didn’t offend me.”

It was after a week that they met again. She was standing behind the monkey’s cage holding out a leaf to it when he turned up; she smiled heartily at him. Surveying her from head to toe, he asked, “You were in detention, were you, in the past few days?”

“Oh no,” she said, trying to deflect his hungry gaze.”Look here, this monkey was a bus conductor in its past birth.”

“And what makes that evident?” His eyes were still devouring a feast of sight.

“Look,” she said, pointing to the monkey who was taking the leaf. “Look, his idea is not to take the leaf but to hold the hand holding out the leaf. I know how it was with the card-sized season ticket, how the conductor took it, when I was in High School.”

Noticing that he was done with the general survey and was now embarking on a limb-by-limb inspection, she bent down and started gathering the fallen leaves. “I didn’t know you were such a precious gem in your family. Easier to apply for a job actually! Education, good character, family status … nothing suffices! Your father seems to require his son-in-law to put you in an ivory altar and worship …”

She continued gathering the fallen leaves without a word in reply. Some spectators left the monkey and started looking at the young woman with interest. His sense of entitlement didn’t savour that. “Let’s talk a walk, get up.”

She stood up. She walked silent and doll-like up to the aviary. Inside a few birds were meditating on one foot. Two others who sounded like they were ululating, were engaged in a fierce quarrel. That sight made her natural liveliness overcome the temporary reticence completely. “Can’t get enough of this sight even if I saw it every day!”

“I am the one who interrupted it for four or five days?”

“Who said?” she countered, “Father told me about it only yesterday.”

“And what did you decide? Your father said that nothing can be decided without you agreeing completely.”

She looked at him smilingly.

“I don’t think it is a great thing to be the husband of a wife who has a superiority complex,” he said. “I think that well of myself.”

They continued to walk. When they reached the top of the steps going up from beside the bear’s cage, he said, “Was determined to jump off these steps if my desire was not fulfilled.”

“How sad! So because of me the bear has lost a hearty meal!”

His hands were struggling under some urges. How adorable were her ways! As if to stop himself from crossing a line, he tied his hands behind himself and said. “I am moving to a new house in a couple of days. Have been put up in bachelors’ quarters till now.”

Her eyes were filled with mischief as she looked at him. “Oh, so you were a bachelor till now? I have heard that the president of the Bachelors’ Club in someplace has fourteen kids?”

They had reached a place where there were more visitors crowding. Otherwise she would have been properly punished for that mockery of all bachelors, he thought. Instead, he said, “I am a writer.”

“Are you a bard of love?” She put on a worried face. “They prefer Shringara. And me – even old women past sixty would have more shame and shyness than me.”

“I don’t write poetry,” he smiled. “I write about economic affairs. If you are in the habit of reading the papers regularly you may have come across my name.”

“Oh, I who won’t touch a book, read the papers! I am a great enemy of paper. I like only the spoken word, and never the written.”

“That’s my good luck. I am not likely to get an inferiority complex!”

—————————-

On the very day of their wedding, Divakaran Nair’s alma mater decided to bother him by offering felicitations. Though he had planned to get back home early, they made him stay back till ten at night.

When he reached home, Padmini was waiting for him with a heap of paper on the table. Seeing him, she stood up and said, “These are the letters and photographs of certain men. I think half of my chastity has been consumed by these. Only half of it is left, and so I am a pseudo- pativrata!”

The novelty of the sweet talk he had expected on their first night together startled him somewhat. He went up to her and asked, “Did you keep them all here so that I would see?”

“You don’t have to see, you can just hear. Sit there and listen, I will read out loud.”

He settled down in the easy chair. She read out the letters one by one. He couldn’t see any budding romance being encouraged in them.

When the letters were done with, she turned to the photos. Like things are sold in the Fancy Fair melas, she picked up each and spoke aloud of her relationship with the owner of the face, and its origin, limits, shifts and so on. He lit a cigarette and kept looking at her.

In the end she piled all of it on the floor. He handed her a lit match-stick. Padmini set it alight. They held each other’s gaze steadily. She said, “I had decided when I got each of these – that I will get rid of them only on such a day. Told you right in the beginning – I am a so-called pativrata.”

He kept looking at her through the haze of cigarette-smoke. She continued, “Wonder why I had this foolish thought! When I get some bits of admiration from men, I can’t help feeling think that’s a thing to be proud of! Only when it becomes a nuisance do I realize how petty it is!”

He felt that sitting there silently will only make her spend all night talking.  Getting up and throwing the cigarette-stub out, he said, “Let’s go and get some dinner if you’re done talking. I am utterly famished.”

“Oh yes, sorry, it slipped my mind.  I should be serving you, right?” Sweeping up the ashes into a piece of paper, she asked. “How is it to be? Do I need to fan you after serving the meal, like in the Hindi movies? And how do you want to be addressed? As Aryaputra, or Swami? Which one do you like better?”

He discovered that she spoke so much only because he let her lips have the space to move …

Divakaran Nair was absorbed in his writing. Padmini went behind him and peeked at it over his shoulder. He did not notice her. He was busy putting ideas to paper before they flashed past and disappeared in his mind.  Suddenly his eyes were shut forcefully.  Putting the pen on the table and trying mildly to ease her hands off his eyes, he said, ‘I know how to take revenge for this. When you sing, Padmam, do you know what I will do?”

“See, you don’t understand,” she said, not removing her hands. “Today is your birthday, should I not give you a gift?”

“Your gift is to not let me write?”

“ No, no, here, hold this: tumne mujhko prem sikhaayo!”

“Wasn’t it I who taught you that? Still you sing the other way round, Padmam! How hard it was to please you back then! And such fear about his daughter’s future in your father!”

“Better safe than sorry, haven’t you heard?” She took her palms off his eyes and placed them in his. “Won’t Father be in trouble if his son-in-law is a chronic skirt-chaser? He doesn’t need the kind of luck that brings back to him the double of what he gave away!”

Padmini sat on the table. She moved all the paper to a corner and put the pen on top of the pile. “What is this you are so urgently writing about?” she asked.

“About the inflation of our currency.”

“Oh, of course I understand! Is not my vocabulary limitless? Tell me, what is this thing called ‘inflation’ in Malayalam?”

“If I knew that would I not have given up this fate-to-be-Principal and applied for the job of the head translator? But let me instruct my wife privately: inflation means excess flow of notes.”

“Understood. It was because of the excessive flow of notes in school that I failed and got stuck. So let’s not even discuss that thing.”

Her sari-edge slipped off her shoulder and fell on his lap carelessly.  He replaced it on her shoulder. She said laughingly, “If I weren’t so convinced that all this is the husband’s duty, I would have thanked you!”

He said, “Padmam, there is a new girl in my college, from my place. Know what her name is? Pushpita Das.”

“What caste?”

“Christian.”

“Good name!” Padmini giggled, “Fathers who name their daughters this way are settling some grouse!”

“I too thought, what a name. But she is a great dancer.  So I am thinking, for College Day, why don’t we have you singing and her dancing? As Mrs. Principal you are obliged to come!”

“But,” she frowned, “to entertain men other than your husband, is that not against Bharateeya Streedharmam? The descendents of Sita and Arundhati …Oh, I forgot! I am someone who threw away half of my patrivratyam in the sea of friendships before my pati made his appearance!”

“There she goes again,” Divakaran Nair got up. “My ears are fairly deaf from this!” He got her off the table and made her stand before the clock. “Look, see what time it is? If we are going to be so late…” He moved towards the wall to switch off …

————–

When they returned after the college day celebrations, Divakaran Nair asked, “Why didn’t you invite Pushpita here? Isn’t that your courtesy?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Her sarcasm was harmless. “No end to student-teacher affection it seems! Today it looked like the girl students will kick me out of here and occupy this place!”

“I think it is great good luck to have people like Pushpita to come stay in one’s home,” he responded, “ Those who love an art form can’t help loving those who perform it well.”

“Oh, nothing to worry because we do have something called Civil Marriage. By the way, I too liked someone there today,” she said when she was changing back to home clothes. “Will I ever escape that infatuation?”

He, who usually promoted all her crushes, was silent then, his thoughts were elsewhere. Not paying attention to that, she continued: “Know who? That very big man in your college? I forgot his name?” Shaking him, she asked, “What’s the fat man’s name?”

“Chidambaram Nadar.”

“I have named him in my mind ‘His Heaviness’. What a stout man! “

Divakaran Nair hadn’t changed. He was seated on his chair, checking the proofs of the group photo taken during the college day celebration. She didn’t bother to check on who his eyes were glued upon. Holding out her hand she asked, “Give it to me. I can’t get enough of seeing him! If I don’t see him at least here, I will start shouting stuff like ‘the paper fan, to me, verily, is like the blow-pipe flame…’!

He didn’t hear any of that.

——————–

Padmini sat before her father like a guilty one. “Didn’t I not raise you with such freedom so that you wouldn’t be the meek kitten in front of men? Why did you become so namby-pamby at a moment when you ought to have been self-possessed?”

She did not reply, traditions were far stronger than your socialization, Father. She kept playing with her little nephew Ravi who was tucking into sweets. Seeing her nonchalant expression, Father flew into a rage. “Alright, be complacent! He’s just waiting for a chance to throw off your grip and flee with her! That’s not going to happen in this life. You wait and see him running from case to case, court to court and becoming a beggar! Chasing that dancing hussy…”

“Softly, Father,” she broke her silence. “How shameful if the servants overhear.”

“The whole world knows, and you are still hushing and shushing! Are you so fond of whores?”

“Don’t call Pushpita such names. Her Father gave her more freedom than you gave me. Just because of that–”

“Chhi! If you tried seducing some fellow like her, I would have cut you in two! These are two different things. Now, are you coming with me?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Father, didn’t you hand me over to someone before sending me here?” Her voice rose a bit. “I am not such a big feminist. How am I to come without letting him know?”

He was so angry; he couldn’t speak for a while. “Your respected man, when will he grace the house this evening?”

“Heard him say that from today he’s going to teach in the evenings too.”

“To see her all the time!”

“I didn’t ask.”

“I am around to ask him that. Leaving only after I know what is what.”

Padmini saw in her mind the confrontation between these two who had lost their minds from completely different kinds of emotions. It scared her. This has to end, she surmised. Putting her hand on father’s shoulder, she begged him tearfully, “Please go home for today, Father. I will talk with him and settle it all tonight.”

“Why can’t I settle it?”

“Does a wife get the chance to scold her husband that easily?” She smiled through her tears. So come tomorrow morning.”

“If he doesn’t promise to my face that he will live a decent life, you are coming with me,” he put his son’s child on the floor. “How dare he hurt my child!”

He’s past the age in which he’d had understood what brought me more pain, Padmini thought. Picking up Ravi, she said, “I will come with you to the Museum, Father. It is such a long time since I went there.”

They chatted about many things as they walked on. When they reached the Museum Gardens he took the boy from her. He bought her a two-chuckram ticket. “I will come tomorrow morning. Tell him that he won’t escape me so soon.”

She had come that far to take a walk once more in her old haunt, the Lovers’ Lane. The monkey who slipped off his swing and held his hand out when he saw her, the yellowed fallen leaves — all these aroused old dormant memories in her. Those days, no matter what troubles she carried within on her way out of her home, a walk here would make her joyful. But wifehood makes some indelible changes, irrespective of whether you are new-fangled or old-school.

She walked on, thinking about the random things she saw. That bird standing on one leg, what was it in its former birth? If it were human, was it male or female? Pythons who inspire fear and loathing in humans, did they become so because of any fault of theirs? If so, what prompted that folly? … The bear was stretched out, eyes shut, relaxed. It has neither the dilemmas nor the seductions that humans have to endure. The man who had threatened to jump into the bear’s cage if he could not get her, the same man is now racking his brains to think of a way to get rid of her … Is it really true that the deer is a gentle creature? She had heard that among them, the stags fought and killed each other for the does. Is the natural instinct of the human race any better? … A screen had been tied to mark out a space in which a pregnant lion was to give birth. The shame that Adam and Eve did not feel before they ate the Fruit of Knowledge, how did the animals start feeling it? A lion was licking its newborn. These creatures too love their offspring. Only that it is not as firm and steeped in selfishness as in human beings. Gradually, her thoughts drifted to her own life. Why is Father plunging her into such a dilemma? Won’t he suffer much pain and burden if she returned to him? Is that daughterly Duty? Whose fault is all this? Not her fault for sure. Not the fault of her husband who is embroiled in another attraction. Not also Pushpita’s who caused it. Them who’s? God’s? But would it be enough to say, in that case, let God give an answer?

She stepped on the road. How to return home without finding a solution to this messy affair? What was the way out …? She saw before her a big board which said ‘Drugs Store’. Will not all this turmoil end if her sleep that night could be converted into unending slumber? Father will take relief in the fact that his daughter was now beyond earthly sorrow; her husband will rejoice seeing the hurdle in his path removed …

—————–

Hearing the sound of Divakaran Nair’s motorbike, the students crowded before the college building. Before he stopped the vehicle, a student shouted to him, “Sir, Chidambaram Sir hasn’t come today. He and …”

Impatient, another one said, “… Pushpita Das have registered their marriage and have left for Kanyakumari for their honeymoon.”

The pallor on Divakaran Nair’s face broke past even the light of dusk falling and emerged clearly; many co-sufferers experienced that pain. A student who had been an admirer of Pushpita’s body said, “This College couldn’t have suffered a worse loss.”

Slowly, Divakaran Nair regained his ability to speak. “No class today. Tell the peon to lock up,” he said, and left.

He sat in the park for a while. Nothing seemed comprehensible. Even if he followed them to Kanyakumari, what was the use?  Never did he expect such a turn in his romance.

Anyway, let me think about it coolly, he thought, and went to the beach. The place was becoming empty after darkness fell.

He lay on the beach, his elbow sinking into the sand.

His searing brain soon fell into a stupor.

He woke up before dawn. Where was he to go now? The steadily-blowing wind had cooled his head. Where else to go, but home? Who else could he rely upon to greet him after all the foolish acts and crimes and in whatever shape?

The love of the wife, from old times, now flowed strongly into his heart. He went there at once.

To the servant boy who opened the gate, he asked, “Where is Padmam?”

“Inside,” he said.

Pushing open the closed door of the room, he said, “Padmam, big news! Your Heavy Highness and my Pushpita have left for their honeymoon to Cape! Shouldn’t we send them our congratulations?”

There was no answer from the cot. “Haven’t been in here since long,” he said, and switched the lights on. Going up to the cot, he shook her body and said, “What sleep is this! Or are you angry? Tell me, what penance should I do?”

Her eyes opened somewhat. But she did not speak. He grew impatient at her expression. “What’s this? Did you smoke ganja?”

“Pills,” she said, her voice slurring.

He leaped up. “Pills, what pills?” Picking up a crumpled piece of paper from the table he smelled it. “Isn’t this the wrapping of peppermint candies?”

Padmini’s eyes opened fully wide. In a clear but worried voice she asked, “Really?”

“Yes, how did it come here?”

“Ravi had them.”

He found another packet next to it and opened it. “This is the stuff from the shop. You didn’t open this at all, did you, Padmam?”

“No.”

She tried to get up. He threw away the packet and pulled her close. “Don’t try to get up. Lie down. Let the imagined fatigue wear off. Nice try at suicide. Except that you ate the sweets instead of the pills!”

Ecstatic, she did not find the energy to say something – not even that the pills should be stored away carefully. He didn’t let her have a chance.

Outside the servant boy sang raucously, Premayil yaavum maranthome, premayil …

[Paati-pativratyam]

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