The Riches of Love: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika

The train kept moving and stopping at clear intervals as was its wont. My mind which was journeying in the past, too, had to linger a bit at certain places. But in the end it entered a particular place and refused to budge from there. However much I tried, it would not move an inch forward. Its pig-headedness troubled me.  In this mobile world, if one single heart decided to stay immobile, would not accidents occur? I rubbed my chest with my right hand.

The hand that was trying hard to ease the pain by rubbing the part that hurt also discovered the solution to the pain afflicting my mind. As a result, my left hand came out with a piece of crumpled and torn paper from the left-side pocket of my jubba.

That was Sreedevi’s wedding invitation. Our relationship –I had believed until I received that piece of paper — would culminate in marriage. It was a totally worldly, physical sort of love.  I was not the superior sort of man who could carry on with non-worldly love. The attitude of love, even at its desirable best, could only be ‘sweet’ for me; I was never so beguiled as to call it ‘sacred’. What else but love that is built on the foundation of bodily desire keeps Man human?

I have always wondered why poets venerate love as a divine expression beyond the human senses when it is described with a vocabulary that includes tears of joy, thrills, pounding hearts and so on. It is possible that some people feel an unreasonable and inexplicable liking towards certain things, sights, and individuals.  Does that make it, for that reason alone, sacred? What, really, is love? Utterly desirable urge towards joy. Love between the sexes can differ from other sorts of love only in that the weight of worldliness hangs heavier in it. Otherwise, what special merit does it have?  The desire for pleasure that arises from the difference in kind, is it a symbol of sacredness? Love is the final result of an inner consciousness that attains shape when one senses the prospect of great pleasure inhering in another. When desire does not loom too large in love, the poets call it sacred love. What for? Who knows?

My philosophical reflections on love came to an abrupt end. Tender feelings came to the fore again, piercing the brain engaged in rational thought. What has Sreedevi done? For sure, she is an ever-greater materialist than me. She knows well that love ranks below wealth. Her knowledge of science may also have advised her that in a changing world an unchanging and stable love can only lead to danger. Why had she written a note below the invitation in her own handwriting, “I have agreed to a marriage according to my father’s wishes’? Instead, she could have written that she had checked the man’s financial status and given him priority; surely that would have been more appropriate … Holding that letter, I thought again and again, has she not betrayed our love? Maybe I won’t be able to produce irrefutable evidence before a court. Sreedevi never promised me marriage, true. But I am willing to vow anywhere that she gave me ample encouragement with her eyes and her letters.

Surely it was not the force of desire that made me conclude thus – suddenly my thinking fell into a different track. Woman seeks more to be loved, not love. Yes, I was merely one among the many applicants. That she never concealed from me. Maybe that was a wise policy she had adopted.

In my mind I saw the married Sreedevi. Certainly, she will fearlessly submit a list of former lovers to her husband. Perhaps in that list, I may be No.1. She has nothing to be afraid of. She is about to be accepted and taken by a gentleman who knows more or less the whole of her history. ..

From the moment I got the letter till I stepped on the train, my mind was torn by the struggle to decide whether or not to attend the wedding. I was definitely in two minds. How to speak with her in that crowded place, and what use asking, anyway? I could not find an answer to these questions. But I wasn’t sure either that I shouldn’t take the next bus back to Kottarakkara after getting down at the Tampanoor station. … some philosophical thoughts entered my mind again. What is this thing called ‘wife’?  A necessary instrument for the attainment of Purushartha – saying that in such high-falutin’ terms might scare ordinary people and make them respectful of marriage.  But truth be told in its nakedness, it is but an instrument to make man’s journey of life relatively easy; and vice-versa.  Given that, when unable to get a particular person, why do people – including myself — lament that all happiness has disappeared, that life itself has gone awry? In the ordinary course of life, if we miss a train, don’t we move on to the option of the bus? A heart that insists that it will travel only in a certain predetermined vehicle and not in the one that may be available according to time and place does not deserve peace and comfort. Before machine-run-vehicles were available—

As if raising a challenge to my thoughts which were beginning to think about the comforts in travel in a time before machine-run vehicles, the train’s whistle shrilled. I woke up from my thoughts. The train slowly chugged in to a stop at the Kadaikavoor station as though it were putting its heart into its goals and attaining serenity.

I peeped out. Day was breaking. The light was good enough only to see nearby areas.  Distant objects were blurred like in  near-sighted vision.

Suddenly, I got an awful jolt. On the platform stood a young girl who looked extraordinarily like Sreedevi! How was that possible? Was that her? I peered again. Not her for sure. But how did this beggar girl look so similar to her that at first sight I was deeply in doubt?

I sat inside the train looking at the women’s faces one by one. All of them looked like Sreedevi! Only when my brain explained things rationally did I see what the root of that feeling was. I was certain that this was the height of Sreedevi-itis, a disease. It was then too that I grasped the secret of ardent devotees seeing at the height of their devotion the face of their god in everything.

Anyway, I felt a great liking for the girl on the platform. I looked at her again. She was in a handloom sari with a blue border. Can’t say that the towel thrown over the light-green coloured blouse was not doing its job well.  Her hair wasn’t too dry and frizzy. But the way she had twisted and turned it showed that it rarely met the comb and the mirror. But that wheatish-complexioned face had a great charm to it. Its smiling prettiness attracted not just me but also most others.

No one would believe at first sight that she was mentally disturbed even if the mental hospital authorities themselves certified so. To detect something untoward in her countenance, one had to observe her for a while. The smile was that sweet and unsullied.

She paid no attention to the fact that many were looking at her. Gradually she sat on the tracks and began to look at them one by one. Her gaze which fell on each face overflowed with love. But her expression changed when she finished looking at each one. Once she was done looking at someone, she would fix her eyes on the ground for a few moments. Then the signs of disappointment and sorrow would appear on her face. Then she would look up again at the next person with eyes filled with the beauty of love. Then she would sit down. Her head would bow again in disappointment and she would swallow down the pain like one downs a gooseberry-sized ball of bitter medicine in a treatment.

In this fashion, she examined all the men in her eyeshot. Many travellers who had noticed that she was mentally disturbed tried to talk with her. They all tried to persuade her to get into the train. But she refused them all shaking her head with the same sweet smile on her face. Continuing to sit head bowed again,  downing her sorrow. Even after noticing this – or maybe because they did not bother to see that – the invitations did not decrease.

In the end someone jumped out through the door of the next bogie. He was determined to pull her into the train I thought. Another fellow followed him. When they invited her in, she was still refusing with the same smile, the same shake of the head.

“She attracts you too, is that not so?” asked a man in a green jacket sitting near me, interrupting my attention focussed on her. “Her expression is less mad, more seductive.”

“Oh, I find nothing attractive,” answered a khaki-clad man instead of me. I guessed that he had been in the war and was going home on leave. With the knowledge of someone who had seen much more and the tinge of a sneer in his voice, he continued, “If you want to see nice girls, no use hanging back here, you should go further away. It’s more expensive – ten rupees. So what? Even if you pay five to just take a look, that’s still a bargain!”

Saying this, he took out a cigarette, lit it, and pursed his mouth to blow a puff of smoke towards a woman who was sitting some distance away. She frowned and coughed a couple of times. The man looked gratified. No wonder he can talk of women as though they were mere objects to be traded, I thought. The man in the green jacket told me, “Look, the train is about to leave. She’s going to get in for sure.”

When I looked, she had already got up. Pointing at the engine she said, “It’s about to leave. All of you – get in!”

The two who had got off the train got back in but they didn’t shut the door. When the train showed signs of moving the smile vanished from her face and she entered the bogie with eyes lowered. I sighed, and said, “This too is a woman – like Sreedevi.”

“How did you know that that is her name?” asked the green jacket-man. “She never tells anyone no matter how persistently you ask.”

Let my fall look like a nimble somersault, I thought, and stayed wordless. True, talking of it to someone is a relief, but why be made fun talking about the blunder a woman had caused? I asked, “Do you know where she’s going? What a dangerous nature? Her eye is completely on men. Not even a glance at the women.”

“There’s a reason for that,” he said. “She is not seeking a woman but a man. Apparently at first sight, she thinks that every man she sees is her husband. That’s why she looks at you so carefully. What’s wrong with that?” Pausing somewhat, he continued, “She is mad? Indeed, if you only bothered to think a bit differently, it would seem that not she, but those who label her thus, are mad.”

“Where is she from,” I asked. “You seem to know her well? Are you from the same place?”

“That’s not too off the mark,” he said. “She is from Cherthala, I am from Puthuppally. Both of us chanced to be in Thiruvananthapuram for our livelihood. She worked in my press as a compositor. I don’t know who recommended her. Everyone was concerned about her because she was an orphan; and she was very good natured too. The poor girl! She was trapped by a co-worker’s cajolery.  None of us knew. I tried to find out when they both disappeared. They had left Thiruvananthapuram. I don’t know how long they stayed together. Maybe for about two months. Then he disappeared and we were able to find her later. Her madness is only because she can’t see him.”

“What did he do, according to you?”

“What’s there to ask? When he had enough, one night, he made off. She continued to hope and wait. Ended up weeping and wailing. I tried very hard to locate him, but —  Then I took responsibility for her. She was pregnant then. The infant died at birth, and she went mad. This is what she does all the time now. But she doesn’t need help to survive …”

“How? Did he leave her something?”

The man swore. It was clear that he was partial to women. “Though she wanders during the day seeking him at night, she spins on a charkha, and her sleeplessness is a boon now. But she comes back without fail each night.”

“Then?”

“The sad thing! He apparently fled promising her that he would return the next night. So this mad woman believes that one night, he will return! Some people think that she wanders about in nearby places not because she fears he won’t return, but because she’s afraid of losing the way. They must be saying that out of affection for her. Her trust in and love for him was that immense. A kind of folly.”

Isn’t my love for Sreedevi a kind of folly too, I thought? The war service chap sitting nearby said, “If this is her style of madness she may be able to see her husband every night. The surprising thing is that the madness isn’t cured yet.”

His mien and tone were apparently abhorrent to the green-jacketed man who sided with women. “Yes, she may seem gullible; you may think that others can pretend to be him and fool her at night. But no. She has the ability to know by sound, touch, presence who her man is – that is what I hear. Anyway, very few want to harm her.”

I did not say anything. He continued, “Woman’s patience is amazing – the depth of her love too. Even then there are people ready to blame them! That’s what stumps me. And that too, members of the male race, which has won the monopoly for betrayal in love. Just imagine if she were the one who did what he did, would she be spared? Would he have stopped before putting a knife to her neck?”

“That knife could well be on his neck too?” I said softly.

“That’s for donkeys.” Opening the third packet of cigarettes since I noticed, the know-it-all war service man said. “Aren’t women are our puppets? Just dolls. When we make them cry, they cry. Make them laugh, and they laugh. Just show them a handful of cash. If you want to learn about that, go far from home, don’t curl up here.”

“At the expense of the government?” The green-jacketed man sounded disdainful.

I crumpled up Sreedevi’s wedding invitation and threw it out of the window. “Yes, what matters to women is money.”

“To men too,” the chivalrous man added.

The train neared the Chiranyikizh station. I gritted my teeth saying, “The poets who write praises to love should be stoned and their arms should be broken! There is no such thing. Rooted in the illusions we harbour. To say that the power of love has the strength to break the power of wealth, is it not just a ploy to drive the simple-hearted to madness?”

The train reached a station. I had reached a decision. Sreedevi was not the only woman in this world.

I got off there to return by the Mail train that left Thiruvananthapuram at seven-thirty.

[Premadhanam, 1946]

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