Agni

 

Cycling was not something that Priya was exactly fond of. But then, at times, by the time she finished the typing in her office, it would be dark. On such days a cycle certainly did come in handy. Priya reiterated the fact to herself as she rode home at dusk along T.P.Nair Road near her office.

Well, this road was just about busy. And Priya did like a road to be busy. But to reach the one that led past her house, she had to ride for ten minutes along a narrow lane with undergrowth lining its sides. That posed a problem. She was a bit scared to ride along the deserted lane even in the mornings. She would stare suspiciously at the men who now and then crossed her path — to see whether they could be labelled strangers with lust in their eyes.

Priya crossed over to the narrow lane in the optimistic belief that nothing was going to happen. All around her were unkempt plants and sodden sand. Here and there, trees added to the darkness. Riding a short distance and passing a curve, Priya stopped her bike in shock. Three men were standing on the road. Even though it was dark, their faces were just about clear. Priya realized quickly enough that one of them was Sanjeev, a burly fellow who ran a telephone booth near her office. As she was noticing the others apprehensively, one of them came forward and picked her off her bike by force.

It was on to the hard ground beyond the undergrowth that they dropped her none too gently. every movement they made was regular and precise. One held her struggling body down while the other clamped her mouth shut. And the third started to remove the clothes off her body in great haste, his hands working like machines. Priya wanted to scream: ‘Please let me go….’ Hands that peeled off the last bit of underclothing from the silently protesting body hesitated slightly when they came across a sanitary pad under it. The very next moment Priya lost even that.

I must be the most humiliated woman on the earth, thought Priya when Sanjeev the burly one’s body pressed down on her own. She couldn’t see his face. Still she realized there was a kind of arrogance about his whole body, even in the slightest of its movements.

At some stage when Sanjeev did not obstruct her view, she clearly saw the other two squatting on their haunches by the side. One was a stripling who had barely sprouted a moustache. The other was someone whom Priya knew only too well. That is to say, when she used to commute by bus, Priya had slapped him once for having taken some obscene liberty with her. Then somehow or other she had learnt that his name was Ravi. And also that he was a spoilt rich boy. Even afterwards Priya had glimpsed him like a shadow. And every time, exactly like a shadow, he used to slip out of her sight.

While Priya was thinking all this Sanjeev drew himself away from her body with a kind of negligence. Her body ached all over. Even in the midst of all the pain unnecessary thoughts crowded her mind. There is no sense of shame in your mind even while you’re being shamed, Priya thought with a slight pang of guilt.

It was Ravi’s turn next. As Priya lay helpless, unable even to struggle, he slapped her hard on her face. ‘You bloody bitch,’ he ground out, ‘You are only beginning to learn how it will be if you play with men.’ Pushing Priya’s face contemptuously to one side, he pressed himself upon her.

When Ravi’s body moved pantingly over her own, she felt she was coming apart like a wooden contraption all whose screws had come loose. The most dispossessed woman on earth — she thought to herself. Someone has staked his claim even on her menstrual blood, which hitherto had solely been her own.

As Priya lay choking down her pain and her cries within her, Ravi also drew himself away from her. Only the one with the lean face was left now. As he touched her body somewhat tremulously, Priya closed her eyes, tasting the salt of tears on her lips.

Priya slipped into a semi conscious state as the third one moved away after an incomplete domination of her body. Still, as in a nightmare, she was aware of the three of them walking away and gearing off on the motor- bikes parked by the side of the road.

When she came to herself, she felt that her body had become a sewer for sweat and tears and a whole lot of other filth. A Doordarsan ad meant for likely victims of harassment came to her mind. They say, showing something like a mildewed mirror on screen, that by washing away the stains, you do away with the evidence. That is true. And of course you need such ads. But they usually do not specify which of the stains you should not wash away.

Priya dragged herself to her feet with great effort. Her clothes were lying scattered somewhere. Her body was full of unfamiliar aches. Biting down her tears, she smoothed her hair and looked about for her clothes. And she got into them. Then she went to her bicycle, which lay by the side of the road. She raised it off the ground and walked a small distance along the road, pushing it. Then, still fighting the pain, she climbed on her bicycle and started to ride home.

When she got home, it wasn’t later than her usual time. Her mother was in the kitchen and her sister before the T.V. Father was not home from work. Priya went into her room and closed the door.

At night, as she lay down to sleep after washing her body a second time, the three were still on her mind. Was there lust in their eyes? She was not sure. When she thought about it again, she felt like crying. Don’t cry, what’s the use of crying — she bit down on her lips. But then again, there is also no purpose in holding back your tears. Turning this over and over in her mind, Priya drifted off to sleep.

The next day Priya went to office as usual. On the front steps Sanjeev and Ravi stood as if they were waiting for her. The third one was nowhere to be seen. As Priya got off her bike, they moved towards her.

‘Keep your mouth shut,’ Ravi said, staring into Priya’s eyes. ‘We’ll finish you off if you talk to some one. Not just you, but your people as well. Get it?’

‘Of course,’ said Priya. Sanjeev was watching her all the while. Suddenly he spoke with an obscene smirk, ‘How did it feel yesterday?’

For three or may be four seconds, Priya stood looking idly into his eyes and then smiled quite in her normal manner. ‘You were simply not up to the mark.’ She continued, watching his smiling face darkening in a scowl, ‘You don’t pack enough punch. I don’t think you will ever be able to really satisfy a woman.’ Then she turned towards Ravi. ‘But I liked you very much. You are a real man.’ Touching his cheek lightly once and looking from one face to the other, both of which were full of suspicion and consternation, she climbed the steps and walked away.

On her way home from work in the evening, Priya stopped her bike before the telephone booth for a moment. Ravi and Sanjeev were watching her come. Ruthlessly ignoring Sanjeev, and presenting Ravi with a smile laced with pain, she rode her bike forward.

As she rode along the narrow lane that day, Priya somehow did not feel any fear. Taking the curve and passing the undergrowth with a sigh, she rode home.

When she got home, somebody was waiting for her — the third one, the stripling. Priya went and sat quietly beside him.

‘I…’ the boy began, his voice quavering. ‘I didn’t mean to…’

His eyes started to fill. ‘Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to get into their company…’ he sobbed, ‘When I touched you yesterday, I felt I had lost something. My…’ Without finishing what he was about to say, he sat there crying. Priya did not speak for a while. Then she got to her feet and patted his hair. ‘You may go …’ After watching him walk away in tears, she started to take out the pins in her hair.

The next week Priya went every day to Sanjeev’s booth to make phone calls. She called up all her friends whose numbers she knew and talked to them, watching, in a spirit of revenge, the feeling of inferiority creeping over his face every time he saw her. Each time she reminded herself: There is nothing that gives greater satisfaction than small triumphs.

And, she kept running into Ravi near the premises of her office and also on the road. Whenever they met, she smiled at him. And every time he saw her smile, he grew uneasy.

On a day on which she had not taken her bike, he fell into step beside her. ‘Just a minute. Let me ask you something…’ Priya turned to look at him. ‘Why do you smile every time you meet me?’

Priya thought for a moment with a smile. ‘Because I like you.’ His face hardened. ‘You like me?’
Priya thought a little more. Then started to speak with the smile still intact:

‘Yes. You are the stranger with lust in your eyes who has been haunting my thoughts. It was only later that I realized it was you. When you dominated me that day, it was a sense of shame that I felt at first. But then I began to like you. And I felt I had, without your ever becoming aware of it, dominated you with my liking. For me, the others’ acts of domination only provided a yard-stick with which to measure you. Truly, in every sense, you are my first man. I don’t know whether what I feel for you is love or not. But I am sure of one thing — however far I may go away from you, my blood and tears will crave for you. Because you are my prison cell — one which I cannot afford to leave….’

Ravi waited in confusion till she stopped talking. The look on his face said that he understood some part only of what she had said while the rest was entirely beyond his comprehension. With a gentle touch on his arm, Priya said ‘bye’ in a voice laden with melancholy and walked off, without a backward glance, towards a bus that had just then arrived.

For the next two days Priya did not go to office. The first day was spent in great mental peace, immersed in a novel. The next day, once her father had left for work, her sister for college and her mother for shopping, and she was left to herself in the house, Priya felt she hated herself. She paced about the house as if she were mad. Then opening the door, she went out into the verandah and sat down.

There was the hum of a motorbike outside the gate. It was Ravi’s. Priya looked curiously at Ravi who was hesitating near the gate. Then she beckoned him to enter.

Ravi made his way rather hesitatingly on to the verandah. ‘Yes?’ Priya said. Ravi did not speak.

‘Have you begun to love me?’

May be because of the unexpectedness of her question, Ravi looked uncertain. Then, in relief, he drew near and seated himself on the floor near her.

‘Yes. I have come to realize that I do love you.’ He hung his head down in uncertainty.

‘Did this love begin the day I slapped you?’

Ravi raised his head in confusion. He seemed to grow uneasy under Priya’s searing look. ‘Do you mean to get your back on me? Are you trying to go away from me? Any way, I will go on loving you. And go on hurting in my love….’

Priya saw tears sprouting in the corners of his eyes. Ravi sat watching her smile for a short while. Then burying his face in his hands he started to cry like a baby.

Priya thought of that evening of a few days back. And also of the stains that stuck to her body and mind. She started to cry. ‘Yes, you’re right. I was getting my own back on you.’ She spoke in between sobs ‘Your love is my revenge.’

Raising his face, Ravi looked at Priya with tenderness. Then stretching out his hands, he touched her tear-stained cheeks once, as if to console her.

And, again through her body, she felt Ravi’s fingers retracting in shock as if they had been seared by the very touch of her body.

Translated from Malayalam by R.K.Jayasree.

Translator’s Note

A new breed of women writers have sauntered into the feminist hall of fame in Malayalam, occupied by such stalwarts as Saraswathi Amma, Lalithambika Antharjanam, Madhavikutty and Sara Joseph among others. The credentials of their illustrious forbearers do not seem to unnerve them overtly. The earlier generation of women writers had dealt with woman’s experience with a kind of defiance. The new comers do not seem to feel the need to adopt a belligerent stance. Not overburdened by ideological baggage of any description whatsoever, they are refreshingly free from jargon and militant feminist posturing. For all their insouciant air, they are in earnest, deadly so. Comfortable with almost all facets of life, the panache with which they deal with incendiary topics almost takes your breath away. They seem to have realized how potent laughter can be as a weapon. Among them, Sithara S., in particular, wields humour, the male weapon par excellence, with amazing dexterity.

Sithara S. made the kind of debut that beginners dream about with her collection of stories, titled rather curiously, as ‘Agni and Stories’. The title seems to imply the special status that the writer has bestowed upon the present story. It is the kind of story that, had it been written a decade ago, would have raised a lot of hackles, critical or other wise. Happily, it has only generated a lot of discussion these days, some of it, of course, hype. The feminist critic Sara Joseph has actually castigated the author for playing into the hands of patriarchal powers. Instead of agonizing over its ideological ramifications, why not take it as a latter day parable, to be told to young Indian women in their most formative years? It would be such a refreshing change from the Sati- Savitri lore they are brought up on.

Translator:
JAYASREE R.K.
 Teaches English at the Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam. Has translated fiction from Malayalam to English. A committed feminist activist.

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S. SITHARA
A new breed of women writers have sauntered into the feminist hall of fame in Malayalam, occupied by such stalwarts as Saraswathi Amma, Lalithambika Antharjanam, Madhavikutty and Sara Joseph among others. The credentials of their illustrious forbearers do not seem to unnerve them overtly. The earlier generation of women writers had dealt with woman’s experience with a kind of defiance. The new comers do not seem to feel the need to adopt a belligerent stance. Not overburdened by ideological baggage of any description whatsoever, they are refreshingly free from jargon and militant feminist posturing. For all their insouciant air, they are in earnest, deadly so. Comfortable with almost all facets of life, the panache with which they deal with incendiary topics almost takes your breath away. They seem to have realized how potent laughter can be as a weapon. Among them, Sithara S., in particular, wields humour, the male weapon par excellence, with amazing dexterity. Sithara S. made the kind of debut that beginners dream about with her collection of stories, titled rather curiously, as ‘Agni and Stories’. The title seems to imply the special status that the writer has bestowed upon the present story. It is the kind of story that, had it been written a decade ago, would have raised a lot of hackles, critical or other wise. Happily, it has only generated a lot of discussion these days, some of it, of course, hype. The feminist critic Sara Joseph has actually castigated the author for playing into the hands of patriarchal powers. Instead of agonizing over its ideological ramifications, why not take it as a latter day parable, to be told to young Indian women in their most formative years? It would be such a refreshing change from the Sati- Savitri lore they are brought up on

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