In the Waiting Room: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika

Santhy was bored. Are BA students condemned forever to absorb lessons seated mechanically in attendance? The lecturer was pouring praise on the poet’s description of Aja who had woken up from sleep and arrived for the Swayamvara of Indumathi. That description, apparently, was gifted to the poet by none other than Saraswathi, the Goddess of learning. The Goddess who wrote him these verses, and the Goddess of Sleep, Nidra, who was now pulling down her eyelids, are no doubt the thickest buddies, Santhy felt certain. Her classmates – maybe because they had a nap at home during the lunch break – were engrossed in the lecture.  The lecturer, a lady, turned to Santhy, “Aja seated on green silk, Kartikeya, mounted on the peacock with plumes open … what a beautiful comparison it is. Don’t you agree, Santhy?”

“Oh, not so great.” Santhy was sitting all stooped, pretending to follow the textbook, and almost seeing Aja and Indumathi in a dream. But now she concealed her stupor sitting up quickly donning the look of the valiant critic, and speaking briskly, “Kalidasa who compared Aja to Karthikeya surely had some grudge towards Aja.  Otherwise why compare him to Karthikeya with six heads like watermelons lined up for sale in shops? How nice-looking could that get?”

That respectable lady must have thought, this girl’s imagination is as mischievous as her nature. Putting on a false congratulatory smile, she said, “Don’t the six heads symbolise six sastras?”

“But the image is so unbeautiful! There is a Vedantic interpretation of Krishna’s flute-playing also? Yet that idea is so beautiful?”

The lecturer went back to interpreting the text. Santhy began to plot her escape from the class. In the end, the intensity of her desire gave her an idea. She brought her hands to the sides of her head and grasping them tight, rolled her eyes upward, contorted her forehead, creating the picture of a terrible headache. Seeing in her half-awake head the image of Aja shudder slightly when he saw Indumathi before him bearing the wedding-garland and looking rather unsure, she too shuddered briefly, perhaps out of sheer sympathy. And noticing her sudden unease, the teacher said compassionately, “You look quite unwell, Santhy, if you can’t concentrate, you may go to the Waiting Room.”

Santhy got up looking faint, gathered up her books, and walked unsteadily out of the classroom. All her illnesses disappeared the second she entered the Waiting Room. But in its place a kind of unease spread out.  That room with windows secured with two-inch-wide iron railings resembled a prison. How she longed to step out and lie down just once on the green grass, to walk towards the shade of the trees! These were the things that would have made her happy. But what could she do? Is it not said that women are born on this earth for nothing but living death? Is it not the case that even those institutions that conduct co-education do exactly this? Santhy had been informed by many of her dear friends who were expert spies that many loving eyes were watching her actions closely. Anyway, only when she entered this room did Santhy feel a deep empathy with a civet cat that was raised in a cage back home, which broke out and escaped.

She entered the room and flipped through the books lying around it. Doesn’t matter if Lady Macbeth’s hand grew big or small, Santhy needed to bother about it only during the exams.  She also harboured the false idea that because the author of Kesaveeyam had ended many of his shlokas in ‘te’, he was somewhat lacking in poetic abilities. She picked up The Count of Monte Christo, a library book. The steady love that the hero of that novel displayed was something that present-day people should read about. Santhy looked around again. She saw a letter that a friend of hers had got from her husband who was now in the war service, in Iraq. It might have fallen out when she rearranged the books; or it might have dropped there earlier. Santhy’s feminine curiosity persuaded her that reading it was no moral disruption, and so she read it. It rained loving names; there were hugs and kisses stacked tall. But whenever she read a love letter, Santhy always felt that she was watching a funny scene in a movie.

Malini, who had been on a circuit-visit to the homes of old friends, became her partner-in-crime. Once they had their fill of merriment from reading the letter, Santhy asked her, “Don’t you have a class at noon?”

“Yes,” said Malini who was quite successful in securing a certificate for good character and purity from the slander-specialists. “Our Sir has not come. You didn’t go to class, Santhy?”

“Yes I did, but that description of Aja gave me the chills and a headache and what not.  Didn’t want to make it worse, so came out.”

Malini laid her head on a desk. Santhy looked around for more love letters to read. No luck. Just when she was wondering how to pass the time, she heard her friend sobbing. She forced her head up and asked, “Why are you crying?”

Tears dripping down her cheek, she said, “A man followed me into the campus.”

That didn’t sound like earth-shaking news to Santhy. “Did he tell you to come here and cry your heart out?” She knew well that Malini was no Casabianca when it came to obedience.

To that playful question, Malini gave no answer. Santhy was now eager to see this fantastic knight who had made this weak woman weep thus. “Where is that adventurer?” she asked.

“In the library.”

“Ok, will be back soon after picking up a book for reference,” said Santhy, starting towards the library with quick steps.  She was back in barely ten minutes. Flinging the book on the table without even opening it, she exclaimed, “Yes, yes, I did see him. What spiritual merit do I have, that the sacred vision of such men are granted to me? It’s when I see men of this sort that the sorrow of not being born male dims somewhat!”

Santhy sat next to Malini. She wept even more pitifully, “That man is going to get married.”

Santhy couldn’t contain her giggles. “And you are sitting her sobbing like this for that? I only feel like laughing! You poor girl!”  Santhy’s merry nature won there. “Maybe he is here wanting the women here to seethe in sorrow at the sight of him, that inaccessible gem? Tell him that won’t work here? You know him, don’t you, Malini?”

Malini’s face paled as though Santhy had kicked her in a terribly sensitive spot. Suppressing a huge sob, she replied, “Yes.”

Santhy was sure that people were invariably foolish. From her friend’s expressions, she inferred several things quite correctly. “How intense is your acquaintance?” she asked.

Her merriment must have hurt Malini badly. Santhy cursed her own light heart that could not sympathise with her friend’s sorrow. She was vexed by her eyes which streamed uncontrollably at plays and movies but would not oblige even minimally now. Mixing a certain tolerable sadness to her voice, she asked, “How did you meet him?”

“I worked in his office as a replacement for two months last vacation.”

Fearing her anger, Santhy did not dare ask which office was the sanctum that had fostered the early buds of that romance. Instead, she asked this polite question, “There must have been many others there … why him alone …?”

“He helped me many times, without my asking …”

“What kinds of help?”

She replied as though speaking to herself. “He came over to enquire when I was unwell. Oh, how kind he was! Left only after checking my temperature.”

From this brief memoir, Santhy was able to discern many extended images. Though it made her laugh, she did not show her mirth then. Gradually, Malini’s sorrow transformed into anger. “And now will I able to go along with another fellow if my family insists? The cad! Scum! Dead scum!”

Santhy’s enmity towards the male race delighted in such wholehearted tirades against them. But still she said, “Hush, softly! Let not the lady who received that earlier letter hear us say such things. Aren’t all these men selfish cads? Let us spread the word about them through whispers.”

Santhy’s supportive diatribe soothed Malini’s anger. She wept piteously again. “Ah, how sad! Did he not destroy my chastity! He will suffer for that sin!”

“Yes,” Santhy said. “Isn’t that why he is preparing to get married. The time of reckoning for him is nearing!”

Through her sobs, Malini said half to herself, “But still… after showing all that love … marrying someone else?”

“The love that wishes to end in marriage, isn’t it as cheap as a thing sold in the market?” remarked Santhy. But remembering that a worldly-wise friend had told her that this view was like completely impractical Vedantic idealism, she fished out another practical solution. “Or, look, Malini, when a high-flying officer comes and weds you, won’t this fellow stand in the distance and gulp his disappointment?”

The bell rang announcing the end of the period and a group of laughing girls entered the room. Ever-ready for mirth, Santhy joined them rolling over with giggles.

The owner of the letter which Santhy had read walked into the room. Since she thought that one should not do anything sly with another ‘s’ stuff without letting that other know, Santhy called out to her, “Hey Mary, don’t scatter your Mister’s letters around here? I had great fun reading one!”

This friend who encouraged her impish pranks smiled affectionately and picked up her books, saying, “You lawless imp!”

Malini was still in a corner of the room, her face swollen, pretending to read a book.

[Visramamuriyil, 1947]

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