I recognised that old familiar path in no time. Giving the cab man the money and not bothering to collect the change I went on gazing at the city road which was once mine.
The time is 9.30 AM. It was six’ o clock when we got into the taxi. I thought it was not very proper to put Madhavettan in a bus. The villagers also said so. I have to thank them. Even though he is not that seriously ill, suppose he turns …the good neighbors and some others accompanied us. I won’t say that all this abundant help was given because it was partly their concern too to get him treated. That will be most ungrateful on my part. How can a woman all alone, bring her husband, a mental patient, to the city.
They waited till the consultation was over and he was admitted for further investigations. Then they returned after consoling me that there is nothing to be afraid of.
I am not afraid. I had long known that my husband is a mental patient. In fact I found out this the very day he put the wedding chain on my neck. I was sixteen then. I never disclosed it to anyone. What is the point? Nobody would believe it.
I could have told my brother if I wanted to do so. But again there is no point. He, studying in the 9th standard, would only laugh.
Today, when I got into the taxi so early in the morning that smile in his eyes had dried up.
Chechi! Are you going to stay on at the hospital?
Then he kept quiet. I looked back from the moving taxi. He was standing still — there in front of my father’s teashop. Mopping his eyes with his hands and drying them on the sides of his trousers, he just stood there in the same place.
I stand now in this town path which was mine for five years. Now this is no longer a town but a full blown city. One of the mega cities of this state. That is how the statistics of the media qualifies it.
No matter how much my child grows up he will never cease to be mine. For me who has never given birth to a child, this town is a child. Or I am an early child of this town. Both are the same.
How this place has changed. I too may have changed a lot during this fourteen years. I may come across one of my old acquaintances. Then I will know. Oh! Isn’t this Sarojini ! Somebody may ask. While setting out to this place I had the hope that I may see my friend Varada — my Dushyantha. I will go to see her today evening. It is high tide in the city street now. The waves coming fast from the distances — of people, flies, vehicles, crows. All moving in the western wind losing direction, getting into the traffic jam as in whirlpools of surges and surf. The traffic policeman standing far off moves his limbs. His gestures could not accomplish anything. A sort of stillness. If I remain here longer I am not going to retrieve anything. Everything is caught in the high tide. Let it subside. Then from the debris that is left at the shore I will collect at least a few shells. And may get back Varada too.
Now Madhavettan will be taking his rest on the number two bed in the ward, after finishing all the examinations and investigations prescribed for him. Handing over a breakfast packet to me Madhavettan’s friend said — there is enough for both. Go to the ward and have it in comfort. With the relief of having done his duty he walked to the bus stand.
Here stood C.I.Rajan’s hospital once. Now the board is changed. The building is also different. Only the vacant corporation park remains unchanged. A space filled with non-blooming plants only. Around it an iron fence with sharp pointed grills.
Above the gate the still letters staring out — Mental Clinic. The big gate remains open. A lot of patients keep on arriving. On both sides of the yards vehicles are parked. They remain there ruminating — silent and still.
In front of the main gate the half opened collapsible gate, the narrow staircase. On both sides, the closely barred transparent glass walls bring in the sights of city streets. With the curiosity of the rural woman, I try to catch a glimpse of the inside and look with my hands on the sides of the eyes to sharpen my vision.
I didn’t expect the security on the top step of the stairs. What are you looking at? Go up!
What is to be seen downstairs? Slowly I climb each step. Please hurry up. The people will go up and down.
This just three-feet width of the staircase is not for my sole use. I hurried up. A lot of people are there in the corridors. It is difficult to distinguish patients and helpers. Closed consultation cabins. There has to be two or three doctors.
C.I. Rajan had only one consulting room. More or less at the same place. On the upstairs of the old building facing the park. Rajan Doctor received all sorts of illnesses in that room. He never showed any bias. Neither to people nor to organs. The septic ear filled with pus, the loose tooth, the suffocating chest, the unsettled stomach, the uterus that refuses to deliver a child — all are equals in suffering and need solace. It is given — consoling words, strong medicines. More than all this Doctor Rajan himself used to go with his bag, in which were the instruments and medicines, to far off places in the car that survived the World War, along with the master of the house who had come to fetch him. The car always ran fast. The doctor’s daughter Varada was my classmate. For days together the daughter and the father did not see each other though living under the same roof. She had no mother. A myopic old lady was the only servant.
Varada must be staying somewhere here still. The roots of a family could not get totally lost in fourteen years. Varada could never think of a life away from the town. In our class Varada was the only girl who used to come to school daily on a cycle. The girls in the girls’ school were too shy to ride a bicycle. The class teacher used to comment that Varada could do it since she was the daughter of a doctor. It would be an act of utter senselessness and undue pride if the daughter of a tea shop owner does the same. For her there are so many buses that run to and fro from village to town and back.
Taking my eyes off from the busy street sights I entered the doctor’s room.
You are Mrs. Madhavan, and your name is Shakunthala.
No I am Sarojini.
But I am sure Madhavan said….
But Doctor, you need call me only Sarojini.
Oh! I see, in certain communities there is this custom of changing the bride’s name after marriage. Even otherwise who asks us when a name is given whether we like it.
Doctor laughs. I too smile since it is expected. I wanted to tell Shakunthala is the reason for Madhavettan’s illness. Just because of doing the role of Shakunthala once, you turn to your own inner self and ask, Sarojini, are you Madhavettan’s Sarojini or Dushyanthan’s Shakunthala?
The big window behind the Doctor’s seat has no bars. An open space. Through my wet misty eyes I see beyond. The school where I studied. The school where I spent five years. A girls’ school. Men were not admitted there. A headmistress who is an anachronism living in the past century. Her face clouded at the mention of the school anniversary. There is no precedence. But times have changed, our courageous class teacher pointed out. Moreover it is the hundredth anniversary.
Yes, we came to know of it from the papers. That is a pity. The headmistress’s face darkened further on hearing about the papers. Is it necessary? Now the people from all the papers will start intruding on us. They may even ask why we are not celebrating the hundredth anniversary? But the headmistress gave a nod in assent. Shakunthalam drama was the outcome.
Varada, the tall lanky daughter of Rajan doctor was Dushyanthan. She wanted to spend as much time as possible outside the home. She proclaimed me as Shakunthala. I felt darkness entering my eyes shutting out everything. My God! I on a stage? Seeing me trembling all over Varada embraced me tightly. What is there to be afraid of ? I am here with you!
I can’t retain the words. Drama is not learning words by heart. Then how? It will all come in time when we need it. The first rehearsal was a big flop. The words stuck in my throat. No, we do not need any rehearsal. You just keep your mind at it.
During the noon interval from that shop — oh! that shop is no longer there. In its place there is an automobile showroom now. Inside the crystal walls Maruti cars in all colours, enchanting the wavering eyes of the viewers. It was a low roofed tiled building here once. In the lean-to with the slanting roof was a cycle shop — not one selling cycles but giving them on rent. Varada used to take a cycle on rent and taught me how to sit behind her safely. She gave me practice and instilled confidence in me. Even that early she must have known that to ride on a cycle of my own is beyond me.
Our cycle ran to and fro on the beach road enjoying the eternal caress of the sea breeze. At first the fishermen’s little children gathered around us. They tried to let the air out of the cycle tyres. One day Varada dealt with one of them properly. To the rest of them she distributed her sweet smile freely. Our destination was the willow forest nearby. Placing the cycle leaning on something we took rest on the sand. Asking me where the thorn is that Shakunthala invented as an excuse to look back at her lover on leaving with the elders who had no idea of the love, my Dushyanthan hampered me. She showered kisses on my shining oily cheeks. She convinced me that drama is life itself. The summer vacation started the very next day of the roaring success of the performance.
I confined myself within the walls of the rural small dwelling behind the tea shop. Shakunthala remained beyond my grip.
One lazy afternoon a thunder broke out in the front. Varada, for the first time heard her father calling her by name and that too in a voice resembling thunder. Is it my father’s voice that used to caress me when he called Mole?
I didn’t move. Mother slowly approached father.
This is for your daughter.
What is it?
A love letter.
I had told you not to send the girl to the High School then. It was a love letter from Dushyanthan.
Who is this Dushyanthan? Is it a name to fool us?
Why should he try to write to you?
It is not a he, but a she!
My younger brother laughed out mockingly. I ran to him beating him on both cheeks to get my anger out.
Even though I did not respond, the letters from Dushyanthan continued to arrive. Perhaps my father was afraid that I may conceive through the letters. He did not wait any longer. He chose his assistant at the tea shop, Madhavettan… while the wedding pandal was coming up the servants at the teashop, Ammalu and friends, were surprised and stood dumb. He need not have been so cruel to the girl. If she had finished her school….
On the first night, with the hands made rough by years of drawing water from the well my bridegroom Madhavettan gripped me roughly on the shoulders and asked, “Will his letters come again?” My first reaction was to cry out in sorrow and exasperation. But my pride got the better of me. To weep before this one! No.
“Let it go! It is all right”.
“What is all right?”
I struck him with my sharp stare and pulled him up in the air at the edge of my eyes of my sarcasm frightening him out of his life.
“Oh! My darling I will never again ask you anything about him”. Isn’t it enough!
After a while he asked again, “Shall I call you Shakunthala?”
“It suits you better than Sarojini”.
“Didn’t I tell you not to do so?”
Today he himself has told the doctor that my wife’s name is Shakunthala.
It makes me ashamed to the very core of my being.
Who says he is mad? I.
From the next day onwards Madhavettan started betel chewing, reddening his mouth atrociously.
“Why this new habit now?” Father asks mother.
“Was he allowed to do anything before. Not even to scratch his head, let alone chew betel”. Each time when he finished chewing he asked me.
“See, Isn’t it red enough?”
I just make a hum sound. Well enough?
Go and look at the mirror. Even otherwise you don’t. One day Madhavettan said betel chewing is a sign of virile masculinity. Another Madhavettan came back from the town with a bottle of red tooth powder.
Spitting the red spittle far into the coconut grove, Madhavettan said.
“I am Bheeman now. Haven’t you seen Bheeman who tears open the chest of Dussasanan and taking the entrails out, sucks the blood? Well! How could you? Porattu Natakam is the ultimate experience for you?” When I gave him a good long stare, he stopped and washing his face and mouth, left abruptly to the hotel.
Last night when he came to knot my hair with hands reddened with betel spittle, as Bheeman does in Kathakali, I realised it was time to take action.
“At the shop also his behaviour is not normal”. Father told mother.
That is how I got here. Doctor Rajan’s clinic was the goal. He will give advice. He is the only doctor whom I know and who treats all sorts of illnesses. Varada’s father is certain to help me. The craving to see Varada slowly comes to the surface. All these years I was deliberately trying to forget her.
I have to buy something for Madhavettan to eat with his evening tea. Hearing my footsteps he raised his head and looked. Deprived of the betel chewing, his mouth looks like that of some ugly animal.
While I take my purse Madhavettan asks, “Will you bring some betel chew?” I will ask the doctor. What is there. There is no patient in this ward to whom betel chewing is prohibited. The young man in the opposite bed seemed absorbed in a film magazine. He kept the pictures upside down and was looking on with wonder. “Will you please bring me two chocolates, sister”. He pleaded.
“I will bring”.
“Don’t forget the red tooth powder” Madhavettan reminded.
As I turned away I heard Madhavettan’s voice. “You tell me Ramesha, don’t you think that Bheeman is way high than Dushyanthan?”
I felt a shiver rising up from the underside of my feet — a shudder of exasperation.
The security enjoying his smoke sitting on the landing asks.
“To buy toothpowder, plantains….”
“Which toothpowder and plantains that is not available in the canteen or store here?”
Pushing away the words from my path I climbed down the stairs. The collapsible gate is almost shut — just enough space for one person to move out. With half his work done, the gateman is waiting.
In the city-street it is high tide still. My favourite street is almost invisible under the heavy traffic. Varada’s house is on the opposite side. A lane that runs along the school compound to the west and disappears. It also could have become a big street. Has Varada’s house crumbled down? The big tree that has often offered me its shade! Even if the house is there it is on the other side. How will I cross this flow of people and vehicles! Treading heavily on the zebra lines, the mob is running in a hurry. A never ending race between people and vehicles.
At last I cross in an instant of courage and confidence. Before and behind, those who came to cross became one for a moment giving support to each other, those coming from somewhere, going to unknown destinations. With them I also reached the other side. The path to Varada’s place in front of me. The same old path, visible in between cargo carts. The pits and holes have increased. The school building like the school children stand suffocatingly close but with pleasant faces.
At the first glance itself I know something has happened to Varada’s house. The once shining polished doors and windows look pale like the faces of girls coming out of beauty parlours ….
The light transparent curtains exhibiting the nakedness of the inner courtyards. At one look I felt it had turned to a lady’s hostel.
In the backyard all sorts of women’s wear hang from clotheslines. Two girls collect them and keep them on their elbows, folded. At the sound of the gate the made up faces turn to look.
C.I. Rajan’s name board is no longer there — the rectangular space looks like a window to the past. The nail holes are the peep holes now.
Has Varada gone away from here? Getting married, selling the house, leaving the memories behind — has she gone somewhere far off? But my cloudy mind is not willing to accept her as a wife.
A third girl with lipstick on her face comes down the steps smiling.
I asked, “Where is Varada?”
“The daughter of C.I. Rajan Doctor who lived here once”.
Oh ! madam. She is very much here. She has never gone anywhere else.
The girl wrinkled her brows. Gave me a measuring look from head to foot. And silently left through the curtained doorway.
I feel a lightning passing through my inner heart at the sight of Varada filling the doorway. Varada, Varada, see I am here! Your… Your….
Shakunthala! Varada comes down the stairs with open hands. She holds my face in her hands and asks. How long is it since I saw you darling?
I feel pierced by the stings of sharp calculating looks coming through the window bars. Inside my body all aflame.
Varada takes me up in an embrace and moves inside. Sitting on the sofa in Varada’s room my throat gets dry, eyes burn. She takes a long-stemmed glass full of cooled water to my lips.
“Drink! You have become very thin.”
I cannot speak.
Taking my tali in her hands she asks;
You were in such a hurry to get married, weren’t you? You had no time left to reply to my letters.
I didn’t say anything.
See, there is so much dirt on your nails. You have not taken a bath today. What sort of dressing is this?
I draw pictures on my dirty cotton sari with my fingers.
Raising my face she said impatiently. Fool! I never thought you are such a dumb head….
Within my skin I shrink into an insect. The chubby rosy cheeks of Varada has lightened her high angular cheek bones. Passing her fingers through her hair cropped in style, she said.
“Now there is no question of letting you go off again.”
To the middle-aged woman who came with two cups of tea on a tray she said.
“Leave it here and get lost. I don’t want to see any one in front of me today.”
The door closed. The male voices and footsteps on the corridor back off into the distance….
“Varada, what do you do here?”
She started to kiss me all over. My mind, shorn of the feathers, shone like crystal.
Translated by Sudha Warrier from Malayalam
P. Valsala, the renowned novelist and short story writer entered the Malayalam Literary field after fiction had established itself as a major genre in modern literature. Her talent shared the maturity of the times and escaped the teething troubles of the less talented. It was the most fertile era of Malayalam literature especially for fiction. Two generations of great writers stood shoulder to shoulder in full bloom — Thakazhy, Basheer and Karur sharing the glory with Kesava Dev, Pottecaud and Ponkunnam Varkey and another spectacular array Uroob, Nanthannar and M.T. emerging fast. But Valsala discovered her domain in no time and never moving away from it evolved herself into the master creator she is today. She belongs to the second generation women writers who survived and surpassed the male dominated arena of Malayalam fiction by taking the path blazed open by Rajalekshmi and K. Saraswathy Amma.
In this story “The world without Dushyantan and Bheeman” she is at the summit of her style where talent and craft fuse to create the best with the bare minimum. She has left the Wayanadan dialect and the enchantment of the North Malabar Scenario far behind climbing the heights of simple communication while seeking the innermost depths of the female psyche. Perhaps for the first time in Malayalam short story Lesbianism is being acknowledged as a reality accepting it without comment or criticism by a female writer. The subtle style sees to it that the sensibilities of a people obsessed with traditional values is not hurt. Others too have touched the theme but not in such a sensitive manner. The underlying sarcasm at the double standards and hypocrisy born of ignorance prevalent in society takes away the superfluous crust of social norms and family concerns and reveals the soft inner layers of the mind. Devoid of any claim of a feminist ideology, without the aid of slogans or messages, Valsala speaks of the woman and there in lies the significance of this story.
P. VALSALA. Noted Malayalam novelist and short story writer. Has won many awards. Writes in a style characteristic of her. Her popular novels include Nellu and Agneyam.
SUDHA WARRIER. Freelance journalist and film critic. Her doctorate was on the topic “Comparative Study of Film Adaptations Russian and Malayalam.” She has published five books in Malayalam and a number of research papers on literature, film and allied subjects. Well versed in Malayalam, English and Russian.