The Activities of the Cheramar Sthree Samajam: Excerpt from Vinil Paul

[This is an excerpt translated from Vinil Paul’s recent essay (Madhyamam Weekly, 26 July 2021 pp. 36-7) rather on the women’s organization of the dalit community organization, the Cheramar Maha Jana Sangham, based on reports published in its organ, the Cheramar Doothan, from the late 1920s.]

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Petition from the Cheramar Sthree Samajam to Elizabeth Kuruvila, Member, Travancore Sree Mulam Praja Sabha

[The following is the translation of a petition submitted by the dalit women’s collective, the Cheramar Sthree Samajam advancing the needs and rights of dalit women in Travancore, to Elizabeth Kuruvila, member representing Women, newly-appointed to the Praja Sabha. It appeared in the dalit publication, the Cheramar Doothan (1103 ME, Karkatakam 30, 1928, p.4). This petition was recently discussed by the young scholar of dalit modernity, Vinil Paul. For a discussion of the historical context and significance of this petition, see, Vinil Paul, ‘Chermar Sthree Samajam’: Tiruvitamkoorile Dalit Sthree Pravarthanangal’, Madhyamam Weekly 26 July, 2021. The Chermar refers to a dalit Christian community (of the Pulaya people) formed by Pambady John Joseph in 1921. In preference to the already-prevalent caste-name Pulaya, he proposed the new name ‘Cheramar’. Both Dalits who chose the Christian faith and those who did not could be part of this new community. The Cheramar Maha Jana Sangham was formed under his leadership; the above-mentioned publication was also assumed this name the same year. Vinil Paul notes that the Cheramar Sthree Samajam was the women’s wing of this organisation and run entirely by women.

This petition was signed by C Mariamma Cherammal. Her biographical details are yet to be traced. ]

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The Writer’s Words: Lalitambika Antharjanam: Part Two

[Continuation of Lalitambika Antharjanam’s short reflection on her practice of writing.]

My first publication was a story titled ‘The End of the Journey’ (Yathraavasaanam) which appeared in the Malayala Rajyam Illustrated Weekly. It was an independent retelling of Sitadevi Chattopadhyay’s story that was published in the Modern Review.

In my early days as a short-story writer, Tagore was ‘God’ to me. The Tagore I had met through the translations of Puthezhathu Rama Menon and Kalyani Amma. And later, Bengali novelists like Bankim Chandra and others — and as I had close interactions with the Sriramakrishna Ashram since childhood, the influence of Sriramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda helped to shape my ideas. My imagination gropes, to this say, in the shade of these mighty shadows (no, of illuminations).

If you ask me which of my stories I like the best — which of my offspring I like the best — I cannot give you a reply. Since I do not read again what I have finished writing, I can only say — all that you like are liked by me too.

An experience that may sprout in the mind as a story-seed is not always easily recognized. After much time– some days — maybe even some years — later, it rises to the memory. From the unconscious to the conscious mind. And you write it. The heat and mobility of reality might have waned by then. But the rawness of the incidents that inspired it would have given way to a more mature and new state. One does not submit to the story-seed. One makes it submit. But that may not be achieved, always. No one writes a good short story making notes for it from beginning to end. The end, too, is shaped as one writes. I have seen stories planned as tragedies turn into tales with happy endings, and vice-versa. Endings that arise as the characters’ experiences develop along with them are the right ones.

‘Inspiration’ (sic.) is truly the awakening of creative impulses. Behind great works of storytelling, there is likely to be great creative impulse. The irrepressible urge to give rise to molten, bubbling, ideas. There are those who claim that there is no such thing as the inspiration (sic.) and that it is possible to write without it. But if one starts writing, it will awaken — unless one is writing to get rid of a nuisance. I will not describe the sweet unease that lasts from the emergence of the seed of a tale till the birth of a well-shaped story from it. Because if such a sweet unease does exist, it cannot be described.

It is after all the images and experiences of real life that mirrors in fantasy and turns into the work of art. Maybe one did not mean it deliberately. Maybe it is not clear whose it is, how, when, and so on. Though in a complex way, it is still something that struck its inner world that fantasy traces. In Romantic stories, the idea may be more important. When people of similar mindsets write, there may be similarity. It is possible that one may be accused of stealing ideas too.

Among my characters who were purely imagined, I am particularly fond of the Punjabi girl in the story ‘A Leaf in the Storm’ (Kodungattil Oru Ila). That’s because she is purely a product of my imagination. I had not seen Punjab then. I had no direct knowledge of the refugees. I read in a newspaper article, an item about how abducted young women were exchanged. When I went to bed that night, this news item came to my mind, quite unexpectedly. And with it, the form of the young woman refugee, bearing the weight of unthinkable sorrow. I sat up and wrote the whole story. This symbol of the moral dilemma of womanhood is my favorite. Because her creation was entirely achieved through my fantasy.

I have never experimented with any particular style for a story. The style appears, appropriate to the tale that I narrate. It will be different for Romantic stories, realist ones, and sketch-based ones. The style that suits one will not fit the other. I did strive to experiment only once. I tried writing a story about the emergence of the human as a seed of life — I had hoped to write, step by step, a whole series on it. But because I felt that I did not possess enough scientific knowledge necessary for the subject, I gave it up.

No one probably starts writing with a full-fledged view of life. But it takes shape as one writes. It is impossible otherwise. The author’s view of life is visible all through the story.

Not meant for propaganda — but the ideas, wishes, aims, which became one’s own, they are circulated through one’s art. Good literature has such a side to it. Even Valmiki and Vyasa wrote in forms that could be circulated.

I believe that it is duty of the kalaakaaran (the male artist) — as well as the kalaakaari (the female artist) to take apart the narrow and decrepit rafters of social life and along with it, replace these the resources with which a reformed and healthy new abode may be constructed. Novels, short-stories, poetry — all of artistic creation can only be an instrument to this end.

The Writer’s Words: Lalitambika Antharjanam: Part One

[In this short essay, Lalitambika reflects on her practice of writing. It appeared as a prefatory note to her volume of collected short stories (Kottayam: DC Books, 2009, pp.xxix-xxxii)

It is the interest in life, after all, that urges one to re-create life. Fulsome works of art can emerge only from the brimming over of the love of life. The momentary interactions that the five senses make possible in an inner realm and turn into sensation. In that dream-like background composed of the truthfulness of reality and the colours of the imagination is born the impulse to literature — one could say, like the rays of sun falling on the moon and turning into moonlight. Dreams are more beautiful than reality. Though a seed germinates in the soil, it grows and spreads and bears fruit in the wide-open sky, truly. The seeds of stories are also like this. They become works of art only in they grow.

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K Saraswathi Amma: Ramani (Part 5)

“Sush burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably. Her tears found their way into my heart and stayed there as hatred for the very race of men. She controlled her sobs and continued: When I asked him about the solution Lina had found, he shrieked like a demon: ‘It was her lifeless corpse that I saw next morning that told me what her solution was! In front of it, I took an oath – that I will douse the fire in me only with vengeance. That is how I came down here along with Krishnan Nair. Because I am capable of lively speech and pleasing behaviour – maybe also because of Providence – I gained what I wished. Because I did not know who my Hindu opponent was, I picked a young Hindu girl who was as pretty and young as my Lina to despoil. Our faith tells us to show the other cheek when slapped on one. But human beings are incomplete. The actual answer in situations like this is – the book says on thing, but the act, another. But personally, I am only full of affection for you, Rani. Helpless I am! A man’s lust destroyed my sister; my revenge has dirtied you too. But I am still sad. That Rani has not suffered the inevitable humiliation that Lina had to suffer!’

“I said nothing. ‘I now leave the beauteous Sushama Rani – literally, the Queen of Beauty — for my ugly bride. That’s the life God has laid out for me’, said he, leaving, leaping over the wall. Scared and frozen, I stood there petrified for some time, and then somehow reached the terrace. I saw the servant standing there and knew that the humiliation was going to soon follow. Though she asked if the laughter that had woken her up was Babu’s, and she had no way of knowing as he had leapt over the wall and left, I made no reply. She asked me, ‘Kochu rani, are you wandering about at night like this with your mother’s knowledge?’ and the question angered me. ‘Don’t you two meet like this each night?’ she asked, and her arrogance riled me further and so I turned around, faced her, and asked, ‘If we were meeting every night, you must have seen us? Tell me, have you seen us?’ She paid no heed to my irritation and said, ‘So what if I haven’t seen? I am a human, a woman, too, am I not?’ Saying this, she went back into her room and shut the door. Probably because of her efforts and perhaps of Babu’s too, this story has followed me wherever I went. You must have heard of it too, Santhi?”

“Yes, but her fancy has not even approached the truth?”

“Whatever that may be, she was shown the door the very next day.” Sushama smiled. “My courage ended the day my exams were over. I was bed-ridden. Amma had overheard the servant girl mumblinf something, and I asked her to get my older brother to come.” Then Sush turned to me and asked, “Do you want me to describe our meeting, Santhi?”

“Not necessarily,” said I. “Chetan picked up the machete; Amma lunged at his hand — must be something of that sort?”

“How sad! People who were powerless to see me weep, do you think they would be able to shed my blood? Ah, really, my Santhi!” Sush said that in a voice throbbing with pain. “What a horrid, terrible secret! Having to tell that with shame that cut into your very guts, with a prayer of supplication — I prayed that day that no other girl may face such a fate. It was as if the confession strangled the very air in that room; the silence was rent by such suppressed sobs and sighs. In the end my brother said: ‘What has happened has happened, anyhow. You get up, Sush. We’ll do something about it. Does he know of it?” No, I told him. He seemed relieved at my reply. ‘It will all be good in two days,’ he assured me, leaving the room, with my mother following.”

“Good,” I said. “Only if all older brothers were so magnanimous!”

Like she hadn’t heard me, Sush continued: “Chetan’s keen intelligence found a way to throw the sand into the eyes of a curious world. Father arrived, to see off my brother who was going to travel, in the interest of gaining knowledge. Of their meeting I knew something, when I saw Father leave with tear-filled reddened eyes. On the night before his departure, when there were several guests at home, I begged Father to let me travel with him. ‘Let Sush and her mother go with him then,’ said Father. ‘Whoever thought that Sush would have a younger sibling! Let her mother deliver her baby abroad. That will be a novelty in the family!’ Father went on in this vein.”

“As we traveled, revealing our real names and home only when absolutely necessary, the living blossom of the dead vine of my love appeared. Once the telegram was sent that I had a baby sister who looked exactly like my father, our fears subsided.”

“When my Santhi — my brother named her Santha Rani because her birth brought us peace, meant the end of our fear – was six months old, we ended our travels. We went to my aunt, in Coimbatore. From there, I returned to Ernakulam, my older brother left for England, and Mother and Santhi went back home.”

Trying to ease the strain of telling this story, Sush lay down on her side on the lawn, holding her head in her hand. I, who was immersed in the scenes of her well-told story, asked her after some time: ‘So you never saw Mr Babu again?’

“Oh! I did!” she said enthusiastically. “He came to my uncle in Ernakulam seeking a job.”

“Did you not speak?”

“I went over to him to talk.”

“Did your uncle let you,” I asked, surprised. “The slander connecting the two of you –“

“Santhi, how many times have I told you, no one refused my wishes.” The sadness that appeared and stayed constant on her face when she was by herself reappeared. ‘The truth is that his very appearance jolted me. How the troubles of an educated married man had destroyed his admirable good looks! When I pointed it out to him, he smiled pathetically and said, ‘I have no desire to live left in me.’ To test whether he had any suspicions about Santhi, I said, ‘Now I have a baby sister!’ His answer however was, ‘Ah then the affection that Ms Rani enjoys now is going to be divided!’.”

Sush sat up. “Santhi,” she continued. “That very day I decided that when I become the mistress of a house myself, I must help him in some way. All said and done is he not Santhi’s … right?”

“Will you not share this secret with Santhi?” I asked.

“My older brother will decide. Even his younger brother, my other brother, does not know. If he knew he would not forgive, for sure. Now you know, I have told you. And I have to tell another …”

“Who’s that?” I asked, really curious.

“The man who will marry me. With my older brother’s consent, I will tell him all.”

“What if he makes it public?”

“Phoo! Can there be such an animal? If he does make it public, then that moment, my older brother will admit that we were in love, but the rest of the story was concocted by me to test his love! No one will disbelieve my older brother. How will the world believe, since Amma went on the tour after she got pregnant, and the baby is the spitting image of my father? Why should it believe?”

“Then couldn’t it be that he does not believe your story at all?”

“What difference would that make? My heart can take comfort in that it has let free its terrible secret!”

“Is that not a wrong, Sush?”

“Look, Santhi,” Sushama began to offer up a bit of the Geetopadesha in the times of Kali. ” Nothing will work if you pay too much attention to truth and fairness. All you need to do is a little bit to convince the world in general. Thomas Hardy’s Tess you can read and enjoy but not emulate! We are born in this alluring world full of lovely rivulets and wild vines and colleges and cinema theatres to enjoy it!”

I asked her again, reluctantly, but unable to suppress my curiosity: “Aren’t you still in love with Mr Babu, Sushama?”

“Oh! Can a woman’s heart become so hard? The spring of that compassion has not yet dried up; it may never dry up, too. And, that love of mine – of then –:” Sush picked up Ramanan and sang sweetly:

Just a fleeting illusion,

Like a flower, a tender enchantment

An ardent blend of song, inspiring

That which sweetens the soul!

“So then, Sush, you are not ‘Ramani’ for sure!”

“Yes, to cast love before betrayal is sheer poverty! Coddling and enjoyment do not sharpen the will to sacrifice; they only wreck it. But tell me Santhi, who is Ramani in this story?”

“Lina!”

“The poor thing! One of the many girls who fall prey to Man’s lust out of the simplicity of heart inherent to Woman! The face of that girl waiting to get a glimpse of her brother’s face before she died is vividly before me. What is use of hearing stories like this again and again? Such things will continue to happen until the end of time!”

“Yes,” I said with a sad expression. “Aren’t they born of our blood?”

[‘Ramani’ was written in 1939; it appeared in the Mathrubhoomi Weekly in 1943]

K Saraswathi Amma: Ramani (Part 4)

“Then visits and conversations began to happen regularly. The familiarity soon grew into love before long. How sad! What a fool I was back then! Mr Babu started by addressing me as Ms Rani, then Sushama Rani, then Sushama, and soon, Sush. Mr Babu became just Babu to me.”

“The day before my oldest brother came home for the Christmas break, impatient to see me, Baby went back home for a visit.”

“I did not miss him so much in my brother’s presence. My brother loved me more dearly than life itself — to him, I merely said, rather lightly, ‘Cheta, that Babu over there is now my friend.”

“The day after my brother returned, Babu too came back with sunken eyes and emaciated body. Where your parents unwell, I asked him, and he replied, I have no parents. After a while, eyes welling with tears, he told me: “I had just a younger sister, and she died last year. It was terribly painful to live in the house that I had shared with her.”

“In a week, he was back to normal gaiety. When we were parting after the joyful banter that day, Babu who was loath to part with me, found a ruse, and though eager, he put on an indifferent face, and said: ‘The moon is bright tonight. Sush, it won’t be hard for you to cross the terrace near your room and come down into the garden behind the house? If it suits you, do come? At 12 o’clock. I will wait under the big mango tree.”

“My conscience chided me that night. But I consoled myself that Babu will not persuade a young girl commit follies — the memory of his younger sister will deter him, at least. I did not know then that the man who strives to fulfil his desire will not care at all for the dangers that his female partner may face.”

“Time flew, with the tete-e-tetes at dusk and the nightly unions. The exams arrived. A week before the exam, when we parted at night, I told him, “I will not be able to come until the exams are over. After the exams, too.’

‘Yes,’ replied Babu. ‘But if I ask something of you, promise me that you will not refuse?’

The next moment, not knowing what I was going to hear, I said, ‘Will I oppose your wish? Good! I hereby take us witness all this around us, I promise that I will not refuse you. Are you satisfied?’

‘Then,’ he said, standing up. I got up with him. He held me and moved us — me and his tall erect body — into the moonlight and said: “I am leaving this place tomorrow. I will never come here ever. Our relationship is ending now. My request is that you should never try to search for me’

“I felt a terrible stab of pain and fatigue, as though I had taken a heavy blow. The brightness and joy I had felt hitherto just vanished. I woke up from that blissful dream. In that moment I saw the enormity of danger in what I had thought of as just amusement till then. I trembled; my legs faltered. I leaned forward. ‘Your fall that day, Sush, was the conclusion of our love, just as your earlier fall was its beginning,’ he said, helping me to lean against his chest. A little while later, when I regained courage, I felt ashamed of my weakness, loosened his grip, and moved away. I told him: ‘I will not violate my promise. But if someone else tries to search for you, Babu, I will not be responsible.’ “

“A demonic smile distorted his face. He asked, ‘Why should anyone search for me? Do aristocratic families permit marriages between people of different religious faiths?’ “

“That question left me trapped again. I spoke, without revealing my defeat: ‘Do you know in how many the rage of vengeance will be aroused if I shed a single tear? Money and power can do anything. I have powerful relatives all over Kerala who can do anything to you, Babu.’

“Babu’s face turned pale at this but his voice was still calm. “Never mind. I have extracted revenge for my sister Lina. What do I care now?”

“Babu was silent. He had never looked like someone of a different faith. But from the name Lina I guessed that he was Christian. I shuddered at the thought of my future. But soon I raised by head high. Babu wept as he said, ‘Alas, Rani, our parents died when my Lina was just twelve. We were helpless. A dirty old miser, a relative, took us in making me commit myself to marrying a dirty daughter of his. I just wanted to save Lina from the agony of knowing want, and so agreed. I left Lina in his care and came to Thiruvananthapuram to study. It was hard to part with her. But who had the money to travel frequently? Thus, sacrificing my will, willing away my life, I protected her. For what? Just so that her tender young heart and abundant beauty would be sacrificed to a Hindu murderer!'”

“Babu laughed hard; he sounded like he was going insane. He continued: ‘That is why I took my revenge tonight. My sister loved him not knowing his name or place, not wishing to know. He seduced her. Made her immature heart believe him. Then destroyed her.'”

“His face blazed with anger and his eyes were overflowing: ‘In the end, the sadness in her letters drew me back home. Paying no attention to the family’s scolding and chiding, I went to her room and asked her why she was sad. She wept as she told me that she had loved someone without the family knowing and hat he was not to be seen now. A fragmented story, with no hear nor tail! But what came after?’ Babu roared again: ‘Lina told me that I was to become an uncle because of that man’s treachery! He disappeared at that news. My dependence did not give me even the time to think about how I could rescue her from the impending humiliation! If I threw aside everything, took her, and ran away somewhere, would that not be the worst ingratitude? In the end, seeing no way our, I told her to guard the secret well and that I would find a solution when I returned – and came to Thiruvananthapuram, with a burning heart. For the fear of the person who had spent the money, I appeared in all the exams. But I did not read the question paper, nor did I write any answer. I returned home at midnight after the exam. Will I ever forget the withered face, Lina’s face, in front of the lit lamp? God! How beautiful she was! Her joy at seeing me gave me some comfort. She told me that she had found a way out and that she would tell me about it the next morning.’ “

Sushama fell silent for some time. Then she said, “How terrible, the greatest curse from God is to be born woman! A compassionate heart; a dangerous body. I was in the terrible fallen state in which I had to ask what solution she had found.”

K Saraswathi Amma : Ramani (Part 3)

“Great!” Sushama said with a smile. “She who was ready for a pure Gandharva marriage, what fear of social humiliation can she have? In any case, what secret existed in the world that her father’s wealth and power could not hide? The world today worships the God of Wealth. Money can kill a lover, make a virgin pregnant, turn a whore into a chaste woman, and a criminal into an innocent, and besides, throw the sand in the eyes of the world in general.”

Sensing a tinge of sorrow in her voice, I looked at Sushama’s face. I took her rosy cheeks in my hands, turned her face to me and asked, “Why, you are weeping, Sush! When everyone weeps thinking of Ramanan, you are weeping for Chandrika! Not bad! Isn’t the world full of different tastes?”

She spoke in between sobs: “God! How fragile this creation, Woman!”

The ringing of the bell from the college entrance took away the last moments of the two-hour lunch break on that Friday and dissolved in eternity. That call to duty brought out the women students resting on the cashew-tree boughs and tree-shades. Pulling me up with her, Sush said, “Let us skip classes this noon and sit and talk somewhere.”

“I am game. But in the end I have to pay the four-chuckram fine!”

“I too have to pay?”

“Oh, you are the daughter of a powerful official! They’ll just chide you and say, don’t repeat it! The Lady Principal will let you go!”

Inside the colourful mess of students returning to their classrooms in the college buildings with their books, we talked of our longstanding friendship. Sush had come here from Ernakulam to join the Junior BA course, and her high-status, privileged aloofness had led the other students to nickname her ‘Rani’, cutting short her full name, Sushama Rani. When I mentioned how she had rejected the company of other high-status students, daughters of high officials, and instead sought the friendship of someone like me, two years her junior, she said, “I have never met a girl like you, with so many friends! Who can love so sincerely like you? How quickly did I become the leading one among those friends! Do you remember thatI committed an offense lately?”

“Will I forget? That day, in the library, when I was about to join the students who had read the poem Manimuzhakkam, you dragged me away with so many arguments — that it was just about a fool who hanged himself because he couldn’t get a particular woman, that it was such a trivial thing that these students found so enjoyable, that we should not listen to this fool’s business, whether the race of Woman had become extinct on the face of the earth … and on and on! When I think of it even today, how angry I feel!”

“Shall I tell you a story as a penance for doing that?” She asked, after we had settled down under a large tree. “The title of my story is ‘Ramani’. The first part of the story is pretty well-known. The last part, even if I, and not you Santhi, proclaim to be written by this Sushama Rani, no one would believe!”

She fell silent for some moments, and then began to tell the story: “That was when I was studying for my School Finals.”

“Who’s the ‘I’ in this story?”

“It is inauspicious to interrupt a tale when it is just beginning. Couldn’t it be that I am trying to strengthen the narration by telling it from the place of the chief female protagonist? Do not interrupt me henceforth.”

“No, I won’t. Please continue.”

Sushama started again. “My father and brothers used to live in Thiruvananthapuram those days. My father was a Judge in the High Court. My brothers were college students. Father would come home only once a month. Brothers were allowed home-visits only during the holidays. My oldest brother, who had a great affection for me and who used to visit me secretly without acchan knowing sometimes, was also too busy then as he was about to complete his BL.”

“Good God! How few are those who have grown up in affection, like me! No one has ever opposed my wishes. I knew only much latter that the boundless love of many, rare beauty, and abundant wealth are all curses that God had rained upon me. Those days, I was so endlessly proud. I thought that I was the Queen of the Universe! My unrestrained arrogance did not allow me to treat anyone as my equal. I had never seen poverty; never experienced the lack of love; never known sorrow. My ability to observe was completely decimated by the glitter of that lustrous side of fortunate existence which seemingly awaited my every wish as its command. I did not imagine that the world had a dark side.”

“Yes, that year, in the month of Chingam, in March, a certain Krishnan Nair who had decided to write the BA exam that month and his family became our neighbours. That house belonged to us and so a member of the family came over to meet my father as their representative. His name — should I tell you his real name, or will a false one do?”

“That’s up to you, Sush.”

“Oh! But why should I lie? He was called Babu by everyone. ” The very utterance of that name seemed to wipe out the colour from face. “My father who was the reformist sort, introduced me, who was just fifteen, to him.”

Again she fell silent, in a surge of emotion. In the end she smiled, though it took an effort, and asked:

“Should I describe that form which appeared to me as the very personification of Manliness.”

“Sush, as you please.” I said, “If you would like to tell, I am eager to listen.”

“Or, maybe not,” she said gravely. “I was not taken by that tall, lean, golden body or the face that represented the finest of manly good looks. I have seen such heart-warming openness of behaviour only in him and then in you, Santhi. A countenance that brimmed with joy, vivacity, and such honorable ways of interacting! His treatment of me as an equal delighted me. His offhand comment about my beauty pleased me too. In truth, I prefer love to respect. That’s why I liked Babu then and I now love you, Santhi. And besides, youth is the time when you yearn to give and take love from relationships that you are not born into. But I never did wish to get such love from a man. Why did God who sent Babu to me did not send you, Santhi! Fate is a force that acts against humans. Its determination –“

Sush’s voice faltered. Her eyes welled. I said: “Is it not foolish to weep over the past, Sush?”

The tears in her eyes and the smile on her lips glinted alike. She continued her story: “We met again after four weeks. When I stumbled on the path during my evening walk, he helped me up.”

As she stared intently on the lawn as if reading the book of the past, Sushama’s body quivered. She sat close to me and her hands held mine tightly: “Yes, Santhi, that fall was a portent of my imminent fall from worldly pleasures. He helped me up humming a Hindi song. I looked up in wonder at who this great singer was –” and she sighed, continuing, “Yes, the opening stanzas of the first act of my tragic love story was recited by Mr Babu.”

“I too received the intuitive warning that those who are at the brink of danger – to stay away from with him. So I stopped my evening walks totally. But whenever I went up to the terrace, I saw him. A month went by, and Father came home. My parents chided me and told me to resume my earlier routine. I tried to object quite strongly, but what was the use? Fate triumphed. We found out that day itself. The moment he saw me, Babu asked, ‘did you not change your usual routine because of me?’ ‘Why should I fear the sundry types I may see?’ Though the conversation was not pleasant, we parted with enhanced attraction, thanks to his liveliness.”

K Saraswathi Amma : Ramani (Part 2)

“But wouldn’t that decision been the sounder one? Ramanan was deeply wounded when he was abandoned. His life withered away, true. But if Chandrika had been faithful to her love, how many lives would have withered and died? The parents would not have lasted long at the sight of their daughter’s despicable fecklessness. Chandrika needs not Kuchela’s pure-hearted poverty but Kubera’s riches even if it is impure. Does not Ramanan who is forever singing “This world is not a fantasy” know this? The ultimate aim of Chandrika’s immense sacrifice for the sake of love would be of Chandrika, Ramanan, and their poverty-stricken children, born of the daughter of a wealthy family, sinking in the mire of hardships and disappearing from the world before or after each other.”

“There was one way out, Sush,” I said. “Why couldn’t have she raised the cowherd from his decrepit cottage to the flower-laden mansion?”

“He become her slave?!! Better than that…”

“Slave? Great! How can that be? When she submits to him all that she had and takes him as her Lord and Master, she is the one who becomes the slave, right? Sublime love….”

“Not divine love, possible lust, that was what it was. A sweet attraction. Ramanan’s eye, besides did espy not just Chandrika’s purity of heart and glowing body, but also the abundance of her diamonds? Ramanan’s comparison of status, worry about meeting his beloved, and fear of separation clearly indicates that his love was utterly worldly. In any case, didn’t I say right at the beginning that ordinary people would find it hard to draw a living picture of love against a background that is hollow- that is just a fantasy ?”

“If so, aren’t her parents really the culprits?”

“Yes, there are in the world no others more culpable and selfish than parents – the very icons of selfishness! To make the their children’s enviable social statuses the very aims of their life — what a crime! But what to do, are not parents such undesirable creations in this world?”

Sush’s derogatory tone angered me: “Agreed, I am a fool. But how is Chandrika, who seduced and sent to death a poor chap who knew well his unsuitability and tried to keep a distance, a good woman! He was so virtuous!”

“Look, Santhi, a maiden approaching a man begging for love? Honour is most important to them. Women who cannot declare their love or seek after their lust cannot beg for love either. Chandrika somehow got an inkling about Ramanan’s love for her. The poor child! That caged parrot deluded herself. His swelling love and adoration intoxicated her impassioned heart — emotions that could simply not be wiped away sprouted up there. A young heart, was it not? She felt that she could give up her very life for the youthful goatherd who sang her praises thus. ‘What is there so much for others to blame?’ ‘What can father and mother possibly feel, about their little girl’s abundance of love?’ – she lisps – what can such a little elite maiden know of the world? The Chandrika who silences Ramanan who begins to preach to her about the world by saying ‘I don’t want to listen to this speech’, is she not but a child in the matter of life-experience? In the end her eyes opened only in the tension between Ramanan’s love and her engagement. That uncompromising state of affairs stared at her, who was but helpless, in the face. Either suicide or betrayal of love – both equally strong, equally sinful. In the sudden nervousness, she felt that suicide was better, but she did perceive her duty correctly, in the end. She who had grown up in comfort and indulgence, was simply not strong enough to endure new and endless difficulties. With a heart thrashing about in pain, she bid goodbye to her lover in her mind. Is not the greater sacrifice that of love for duty, and not of duty for love?”

“Indeed, indeed! How magnanimous! Like that Lord Coverly said, you can argue plenty from both sides! But that’s not what surprises me — how is she going to look at her husband’s face, after all this hullaballoo?”

“What does she have to fear? My Santhi, you have seen only the world of men which preaches ideals, is it not? Your poor thing, just walk around, take a good look, understand what is happening! In their dictionary, bachelorhood has never been the synonym of chaste brahmacharya! Those who indulge in wrongs out of their lust should not condemn those who are frivolous at the beginning stage of their mental development, if they possess the least sense of fairness!”

My scarce good sense advised me to keep silent, given the fact that my knowledge was extremely limited and entirely reliant on books. Sush continued: “In any case, what did Ramanan’s sincere friend, the one who kept declaring, ‘are you not my life?’ and so on, what did he do? Like Chandrika, Madanan too kept egging Ramanan on in the matter of love. That raised Ramanana temporarily to a state of ecstasy that was beyond worry and precaution. But it turned him mad and led him to suicide at the news of Chandrika’s wedding.Santhi, the stern truth is that Ramanan was killed by the ‘two endearing stars of the sky of [his] life.’ What dangerous folly it was for Madanan who had roused the fire of Ramanan’s desire by telling him that ‘what a terrible sin it is to refuse this pure-hearted gift of love’, just when Ramanan was trying to curb his craving for Chandrika, quite wisely? Did not his love have the effect of enemity? The same Madanan who said that if only Ramanan would confide in him, he would mortgage his very life’ and also advice Ramanan that he should not let his life waste away ‘for a mere woman’ — what does he do in the end? Instead of strengthening his weak-willed friend by his presence and consolation and stopping him from making tragic moves, he takes it out at fate, saying, ‘why did you make me a witness to this gaol of sorrow?’ , then trembles, ‘what will I do, what will I do!’, and finally in his dearest friend’s moment of great danger, closed his eyes, proclaiming that ‘I cannot bear to see!’ What a despicable, laughable reward for Ramanan’s sincere affection! The true friend is not he who withdraws from the weakness of love in the face of danger, but he who will offer courageous aid.

Sushama fell silent. I could not find argument to support my stand, so I too was silent. I was surprised by the eloquence of Sushama who was rather known to be taciturn. She broke the silence again. “How can Chandrika be held responsible for the weakness that laid around Ramanan’s neck the fatal noose, a weakness that was of his own heart?” Did not he decide, after having tried many times to get past frivolous desire, to leave that fantastic world of desire, and failed, to end the act with one of shedding his own blood. Ramanan who had advised Chandrika to think well and if she found it harmful, to throw that love into ‘the wilderness of forgetfulness’, could he not take comfort in the fact that Chandrika had merely taken his advice and accepted the bridegroom that her father had found her? Why did Ramanan who knew well of the ways of the world, allow the undesirable, disallowed, pointless desire to thrive and grow?”

“My Sush, are not human beings incomplete? Even the incarnations of God are flawed! It is entirely wrong to say that Ramanan had no purity of ideals.” I felt that my words lacked the strength of conviction but still continued. If Ramanan was only like any other man in this world, then would he not have caused the flighty Chandrika social shame? She was the one blinded by lust!”

“Chhe! You mean by the intoxication of love! Santhi, bodily desire is not something that arises in a girl’s body on her own. It is something that is awakened by constant male presence and influence, and which grows in time – you would know if you thought about it well. But I will not say that Ramanan’s idealism and self-control were not admirable. My effort has to reduce the faults heaped upon Chandrika in a depiction that makes readers see all responsibility of the tragedy as essentially hers – to show that these faults are less than this from that very depiction. If not for the force of social law, Chandrika would have remained the heavenly river of pure love. And even if Ramanan did manage to achieve his desire, what insult would have befallen Chandrika from that?”

I asked, rather surprised: “How come?”

K Saraswathi Amma: Ramani (Part 1)

[This is my translation of her famous response to the poet Changampuzha Krishna Pillai’s pastoral elegy Ramanan, which was arguably the most popular book in Malayalam in the 1940s. It told the tale of a poor goatherd, Ramanan, who fell in love with a beautiful aristocratic maiden, Chandrika, who, the poet bewails, betrayed their love by marrying another. Unable to bear the end of their love, the goatherd commits suicide. At its time, this feminist reading of Ramanan was not treated with the seriousness that it deserved but as a typically eccentric outpouring of a strange woman.]

“Throw away that book, Santhi,” Sushama came up to me after lunch, ending the silence under the causarina trees in the Women’s College campus. She snatched Ramanan, which I was holding in my hand, and threw it down with vehemence. “There’s nothing in it to pore over so avidly!”

“I’ll decide that?” I pulled the edge of her saree down and made her sit beside me. “But don’t vent your anger on the book. It’s a crime to damage library books like this.”

Her reply was in a piece of song:

Readily will I take all blame

But may you not misdeem;

Nothing abides over thee

In this life, this world of mine.

“The last declaration is a lie.”

“Yes,” she hugged me tight and said. “But I have never loved a girl-friend so much.”

I replied in a derisive tone.

“My Queen, I am glad to have received thy priceless love!”

Sushama reddened: “Santhi, how many times have I told you not to call me ‘Queen’! Poor kids! What do they know! What is the fate of the moth that leaps into the flame mislead by its outer allure? I know that my association does no one any good.”

“But then why did you make me your friend!!”

“Oh, that’s because I think that your nature is not swayed by external influences. I was taken by your naturally happy disposition! Somehow, I also felt that we were sincere friends for long, by some tie of a former birth. And besides, I really like the name Santhi.”

“But why do you preen so much, Sush?”

“Look, too much of coddling is bound to spoil anyone! Do you know what all my tears can achieve? I can do all sorts of wrong, I will not be blamed. Ah, leave it, Santhi,” she picked up Ramanan, which had fallen some distance away : “What is your opinion of Chandrika, in this work?”

“What a question!” My deep antipathy towards Chandrika instantly boiled in my blood. “What is there in favour of her? That vessel of gold a-brim with venom who betrayed the Lover who was entranced by the intoxication of Love, who was overflowing with blissful song — for cheap, ephemeral pleasures of the world… It was not Chandrika – moonlight – at all but an ill-omened comet from which the venom spilled all around… When that smouldering piece of firewood covered with silk, that flame which let out poisonous fumes, fell on that gentle cowherd boy and seared his tender body–“

“Calm down, tell me calmly,” Sushama said, covering my mouth with her rosy palm. “Speak without anger. Do you love Ramanan so? Great! If only he knew that the vine of his heart which had dried up from the disappointment over his first love had a chance to sprout again touched by the flow of love from such a lover of literature, he would not have killed himself. ” She took her hand away and continued, “But Santhi, should not such a harsh judgement be passed only after considering the circumstances under which such a cruel betrayal happened, especially by Chandrika who belongs to the race of women who Man had honoured with such epithets as abala [weak], chapala [flighty] and so on?”


“But why didn’t she think of all that in the first place? Did she not boast that even if the lamp of the sun dies in the sky, the lamp of her love shall not end? That she was willing to beg with a leaf-bowl for the sake of that sacred love? Did she not proclaim her willingness to sacrifice thus? How sorry! My regret is that she has heaped up such endless infamy and insult on all women!”

“Oho!” Sushama seemed all game to make fun of me. “So the fear is that no one may turn up to claim My Santhi’s love, right? Hey, don’t fear that. These are folk whose precept is, “do not count the teeth of the cow given free”. In the end when losses and gains are counted, all the losses are hers and the gains, his. She has become impure; her chastity is destroyed. She is the target of ridicule and insult, her heart is sore. Man is of course free in all ways? All joys that are available to the experiences are his; all of it is his gain. The curses of parents, the contempt of the world, their derision, hatred, slander, crime, the bad name suffered — and worse, sometimes, divine punishment in the form of an infant — all these are hers.”

The breeze ruffled the pages of Ramanan, still lying on the ground, and swept towards the college building. Sushama tied up the ends of the strands of her thought which had floundered somewhat. “Chandrika should not be condemned and cursed, she should be honoured and congratulated. A woman had at least wreaked this limited vengeance against the terrible betrayals that Man has been perpetrating against women over ages and ages. At an individual level, Chandrika erred. But Man’s work of despoiling is always deliberate. Chandrika’s act, however, had no other options. But the fact that a trivial woman was able to not just steep a man in unending dejection, but could actually destroy him, is a great victory for women in general.”

A song from the Department of Music which was adorned by a statue of Goddess Saraswathi, wafted through the air, caressing us. “And even if we admit that Chandrika is indeed a wrong-doer, her fault is not too big for sure. Look, Santham. Why is that the rich girl who luck exceeds the extent of the universe and sees all of the world in white light, from her mansion, not ready to act according to her boasts and promises? Either leave father and mother to fulfill my love, or from today forget that little bamboo flute… it was when she was forced to choose between these two lives that she noted the difference between them. In the first, the sole gratification was about the fulfilment of love, everything else is sorrowful. In the latter, the only pain is the loss of her beloved. “My pleasure, my victory, my enjoyment, my beauty, my brilliant youth’ — if all of these, except love, which are greatly sweet to Chandrika, are to be sacrificed at the altar of love with its foundations laid upon the God of Poverty, what would be her state after? The sorrow of her parents will tear apart her conscience. The derision of the world will pierce her heart and divide it; the poverty-stricken life in the goatherd’s hut will dry up the blue blood in her delicate body; even if the sole consolation amidst these manifold sorrows — Ramanan’s love — proves steady and bottomless, how much comfort and satisfaction could it possibly give her? God has not bestowed on Man the ability to love boundlessly. My dear literature-loving friend, don’t you know — love is just a part of man’s life, but everything in life for a woman?”

“Yes,” I retorted, “Is that not true?”

“If so Santhi, will Ramanan be able to at least console Chandrika, leave alone make her happy? Should not these things be thought through before she leaves the golden sanctuary of her birth for the goatherd’s cottage to be the housewife there? In such circumstances, if Ramanan’s love falls short then…”

“That won’t be.” I said that strongly. “I will not sully the ray of love even in the world of fancy — that is what he said — no circumstances can destroy his selfless love which is unmixed with desire for pleasure.”

“There! The topic of our debate has shifted!” Sushama smiled even though she was speaking with seriousness. “If Ramanan’s love was really so chaste — if it involved no bodily desire — why was her absence so intolerable to him? When she became another’s why did he wail so piteously – ‘even as you rise towards the matchless pleasure of sexual union, I lie in paths of the netherworlds of despair, growing cold’ – and kill himself? If he had not loved her consumable body but her eternally pure soul, why did he not take comfort in that it was not the heart that she had given him that was being taken away, but just the body? If Chandrika’s love was from just lust, Ramanan’s is no different? My dear Santhi, this sacred love that the poets are busy colouring does not exist anywhere in the world. Even the love of a mother for its child remains within the limits of bodily attachment. Is that not why she feel pain at separation from it? And if that is the case, how divine can be this attraction engendered by callow youth? Even those whose ego has been minimised do not feel love that is utterly selfless. We can’t help weeping with Kanva at his parting from Sakunthala. Tell me, Santham, am I wrong?”

“Maybe you aren’t. I don’t know.”

“Anyway, let us suppose that Ramanan’s flames of love cool down after the fulfilment of the union and in time. And if it gradually gets totally destroyed, what will be Chandrika’s state? Should not the impulsiveness of love be controlled by diligent thought? By then, she would most probably be not alone. What will that helpless, indigent, elite-born woman do then, Santhi, when she would be carrying the responsibility of caring for two or three little children? The sacred fulfilment of love will make her make a begging bowl of leaves. But even a pinch of rice will not fall into it. People will move away at the sight of a girl who defied her parents and ran away with a lower caste man. The street-brats will throw stones. My Santhi, the cow on the page does not eat grass. The world will not remember her as the goddess who sacrificed pleasure for the sake of love but as the fallen woman who abandoned her duty for lust.”

Sushama fell silent, choked with emotion. My experience of the world did not let me say that her argument was wrong. She began again: “For love that it beyond bodily temptations, what is the use of mutual [sexual union]? For progeny? When she sees those children she will know the extent of her sin. Does not Ramanan himself remark ‘how severe an inner blow’ it will be if Chandrika, the sole source of her parents’ hopes, if she wedded him?”

Expecting a response, Sush remained silent. I remained silent, looking at her attentively. She continued: “Then suicide was Chandrika’s last resort. Like all women, she was first confronted by love and then by death. But saying that she would not pour the red blood of her chest in sacrifice before them, she sidestepped both, wisely. In the end, seeing no other way, burning inwardly, she decided to enter the thorny thickets of conjugal life that her parents pointed towards and wander and tire in them.”

“Where did you get all this from, Sush? Did she not decide to live out of great desire for life, that intoxicates one, like wine.”

“Let it be so,” she flashed a beautiful smile.

An Excerpt from Samatvavaadi: Act Two

[Pulimaana Parameswaran Pillai’s Samatvavaadi [The Egalitarian] continues to be one of the less-noticed gems in Malayalam drama from the 1940s. One of the nameless characters of this play, referred to in it as ‘Younger daughter’, is perhaps a powerful voice questioning gender inequality. Below is the translation of Act Two of the play. In the first act, the character ‘samatvavaadi’ murders the ‘prabhu’ (the aristocrat), who is the father of his beloved (called ‘Older Daughter’). What follows is a dialogue between the aristocrat’s ‘Younger Daughter’ and her Lover.

K Ayappa Panikkar, who wrote the introduction to this edition of the play, remarks that it militated against the realist trends of its time, bringing in a pure of absolute form, ideas and world-views onstage. In other words, the women who speak in favour of tradition and who defy it in the play, and the other characters as well, appear artificial and designed to challenge realism.

Yet I cannot help remembering that these were the years in which many of the first-generation feminists including K Saraswathi Amma, but surely not just her, were speaking precisely the language which Pulimana makes the ‘Younger Daughter’ speak in.]

Act 2

Scene 1

[The spacious front-drawing room of the Aristocrat’s house. Black-coloured curtains hang in the windows and doors.]

Lover: You don’t know what you are doing. That man may have murdered your father, but he is your sister’s lover. Your sister loves him.

Younger daughter: I will destroy him.

Lover: Don’t be stubborn. If your sister testifies against him — that will be like her sending him to his death by herself.

Younger daughter: I don’t need similes… that woman knows her duty towards her murdered father.

Lover: You taught her that.

Younger daughter: She knows it.

Lover: A pity!

Younger daughter: You are uttering that for a hundredth time!

Lover: I can’t help saying it again.

Younger daughter: Can’t help refusing to listen to it again.

Lover: We don’t suit each other.

Younger daughter: Didn’t you see?

Lover (stunned): I believed…

Younger daughter: …in nothing. You are unable to believe in anything. Saying ‘a pity!’ all the time, such a person can’t believe in anything!

Lover: I believed in you.

Younger daughter: You disbelieved in me.

Lover: A pity!

Younger daughter (exasperated): Chhe! Stop saying that. You have wasted me, saying that again and again. I wanted to love. To laugh exuberantly. You said — a pity! The tender shoots of everything sweet in me just dried up! It is an evil incantation! You recited it over and over and turned me into a monster!

Lover: Not my fault. You are all like that. Monsters. You want to play ball with human hearts.

Younger Daughter: With hearts? But you have congealed venom there, instead of hearts! Why them do you speak of hearts? Let others speak of the heart.

Lover: Because of you —

Younger daughter: Because of me –?

Lover: I have not known a moment of peace in my life!

Younger daughter: You too, are the scion of an aristocrat.

Lover : Am I not to have a life of pleasure?

Younger daughter: But you do not possess the intelligence for that … you never had to think of anything. You had everything. You were given everything.

Lover: I was my father’s darling.

Younger daughter: You were loved. You never even had to think. And you lost the ability to think. But even the mind of a wasted person needs a space to move in. You created yourself, worshipped yourself. You’ve never known want. Your imagination created it. You wept and tears flowed around yourself. You were under an illusion that all are out to cheat you. You believed only in your own goodness. A truly clever chap!

Lover: How you love to accuse me! This is meaningless otherwise.

Younger daughter: You ended up with a weak body and base mind. Our parents made a pact — that we should be married.

Lover: (aroused by memory) You were just fourteen then!

Younger daughter: You had great freedom in my room!

Lover: A lie!

Younger daughter: My father was the son of a rogue. We have no blue blood. You have no health, but you are well-born. The rich man will do anything for aristocratic trappings. You had great freedom in my room.

Lover: And so — I did not take any such liberties, did I?

Younger daughter: You were a fool. You just piled obscene words on me. Dirty, boring, obscenities.

Lover: (lowering his head) But you liked them then.

Younger daughter: Yes, then… when I began to dislike them you started reciting — “a pity!” … If only you were a man! When my heart bloomed and brimmed over with the sweet nectar of virgin desires… to my youth, to animation, to love, your useless manhood just kept saying, “a pity, a pity!” (looks up) My life! What have I turned into?

Lover: What madness is this? What impatience? Why is it today you…

Younger daughter: Impatience. Events are about to take birth on the arena of the future. On the scroll unfurled by time, fate marks our paths … Hopes await with bated breath outside and behind each and every exit of this house. Do you not know any of this?

Lover: I know nothing.

Younger daughter: I know it. Clearly, in detail.

Lover: Your face is now very flushed. Whenever you feel troubled your face turns red, like this. Do you know how beautiful you become then? There is no one as beautiful as you.

Younger daughter: You arouse me now … what is my beauty?

Lover : Your beauty —

Younger daughter: Is it my spiritual beauty? My sacrifice! Commitment to service! Compassion! Are these my beauty? Am I Sheelavathi? The chaste wife who will not look at another man’s shadow, even? Is that the beauty you see in me?

Lover: (in surprise) Your sacrifice! Your service! Your compassion!

Younger daughter: Enough. I know that I lack all of these. And knowling that well, you still say that you love me. You still call me beautiful. For what?

(Lover remains silent)

You have no answer. The beauty of my body. The heady attraction to my perfect figure. Isn’t that the truth?

(Lover remains silent)

You men never admit your weaknesses. For Woman, I admit, male flesh drives her crazy with desire. But he thinks that the Woman’s seductive power is Man’s weakness. He is shy to admit it.

Lover: (not comprehending) I can admit, Man’s weakness is Woman. When I see you — my courage fails. What all are the resolutions I make when I come here each time!

Younger daughter: Don’t you know that I am a cruel woman?

Lover: (unthinkingly) Yes. (Suddenly) No! That is …I mean…

Younger daughter: The poor thing! The protoplasm that represents the primal evident form of life-force, in order to swim and reach its female mate, must be possessed by an immense passionate attraction. In men, that has grown into a clear slavishness.

Lover: That’s because the heart is surrendered? What can be done? If a man loves a woman, he is her slave. She is, for him, the mistress of his heart, the mother of his progeny, and the Pole Star of his life.

Younger daughter: That protoplasm probably said nothing of this kind. It probably did not know so many fancy words and was not so conceited. It just needed a mate.

Lover: Is the protoplasm the human being?

Younger daughter: No, much worse.

Lover: You want to speak in this confusing way. You used to say such sweet things once!

Younger daughter: I used to say foolish things then.

Lover: You knew how to smile then. You would be sweetly coy when I touched you. Now you utter peals of disgusting, frightening laughter. Stride around like a thug. You are all civilized now, having passed all those exams! That is why. But — Good God — what a transformation!

Younger daughter: I know how to pretend a smile and act coy even now. But back then, I wasn’t acting. My smile and my coyness are all dead. You destroyed all of it. Today, I just have fake stuff with me. My weapons.

Lover: Weapons! … Tell me , who are you?

Younger daughter: Woman! … Can you recognize the Woman? You have not seen her. You have seen only female forms shaped within the sanctums of men! Not women! You breed chaste wives; how can Woman grow there?

Lover: Stop raving. The models for the world of women–

Younger daughter: Woman’s model is Woman.

Lover: What about Sita and Savithri, then?

Younger daughter: They are perversions. (Suddenly) Do you know any history?

Lover: You make me such a fool!

Younger daughter: Do you know how colonisers rule? By handing out honours and medals to some of the slave nations, by distributing shiny caps, making them servants devoid of self-respect. They will be pointed out and this will be said of them — here are our model subjects! Shining exemplars! The colonising power of the clever man. The Chaste Wife of the model created to rule the world of women.

Lover: Excellent. Sita, Savithri…

Younger daughter: Aren’t you sick of that refrain yet? Please leave. Do not test my patience further. Do not drive me mad. Hear this and shudder: my models are Radha, Pingala, Mariam! They are my models. Models of Woman.

Lover : (with force) Whores! No, no you are joking. You can’t be like them. You are good. You can’t be so.

Younger daughter : Cchi! Do not deny my Womanhood … leave … I am part of that eternal seductiveness called Woman.

Lover: Destructive seductiveness! The beauty of the deluge. Your beauty!

( leaves)

Younger daughter: (as if in a dream) Destructive seductiveness!