“Not yet time for coffee?”
He came in from his afternoon nap, yawning repeatedly, and called out: “Three o’clock already and coffee not ready yet?…“
It was only then that she laid down the ‘Social Welfare’ newspaper in her hand, abruptly sat up beside the breast-feeding infant in her lap, and hastened to the kitchen. The indignant child set up a deafening bawl. His fury swelled.
“When one comes in to eat, is he never to know peace without you rushing around and setting the children screaming? – No coffee, no breast- feeding – what were you doing all this time?” The old lady, half asleep and lost in reveries, her tongue mumbling prayers by sheer force of habit, now straightened up against the pillar. The tremor in her fingers transferred itself from the prayer beads to her whole body, as she said:
“What’s the point in wailing now, my dear? You brought it all on yourself. When you let her discard traditional clothes and umbrella for blouse and shawl, and took her around to meetings and conferences, didn’t the rest of us say no, no? Now she has time only to sit on chairs and read newspapers. Hereafter, if you want to drink coffee, or have your child cared for, you had better do it yourself.”
Even before this flow of sharp and pointed condemnation could come to a pause, Pappy came in with the coffee.
In bristling tones of fury, he said: “Just because I have allowed you some rope, you don’t have to climb this high. No wonder your tribe is trampled upon and tethered to the kitchen. If horses sprouted horns, need one say what to expect?”
She replied calmly: “Harness the horse to your cart – nobody said you shouldn’t. But if it is not even given enough hay and water, your pace also will slow down.”
“See how she stands up to you and talks back? Had it been your father, it would have been a sight to see. Bones would have been thrashed to bits,” muttered the old lady. He only needed that prodding to swing his hand to slap her. But Pappy dodged the blow and it fell instead on the coffee pot she carried, which crashed to the floor.
Seething with rage, he stepped outside. The old lady renewed her grumble. Pappy picked up the crying child, put him to her breast and stepped into the kitchen, mumbling softly to herself: “That I picked up that newspaper as I was about to breastfeed is all the pretext… such are these sophisticated people… leaders of society… Oh God!”
Thalipparamba Manor was famous. Its head of the house N.P. was a pleasant young man of substantial knowledge. Caught in the forceful rush to modernity, he too groomed his helpmeet to conform to fashions in attire, found her a place in newspapers and lecture halls, and won name and fame. But once the novelty wore off, like many others he pulled back and fell at the feet of penance, to recover his purity. Pappy reverted to the confines of the interiors. But the budding aspirations within her did not dry out. The thin ray of knowledge that had pierced the darkness within, now strove to conquer everything to brightness. She had the full responsibility of the kitchen and the charge of five or six children, born in succession, year after year. Besides, she had to subject herself to the desires of an indolent and self indulgent husband. Above all, she had not only to cater to the various likes and dislikes, cares and woes of every individual of an extended family, but also to suffer their sour looks and pointed barbs. Why, her every progressive aspiration had to be pushed back as far as it would go. Even so her woman’s heart did not sink down. The hopes and desires that filled her heart surged forward. And at all times, came up against obstruction.
That day’s “Social Welfare” newspaper carried an article that touched her deeply. It seemed to wound her very self respect. A sadness born of scorn, or distaste, or revulsion, or all of them, for its creator possessed her.
That night, after all her chores were done and the rest of the family was asleep, Pappy quietly broached her husband’s presence. As usual, it had been past midnight when he had returned from his card game to go to bed. In the course of conversation, she gently remarked: “Wonder who wrote that article in today’s Social Welfare.”
“Doesn’t it say who wrote it?”
“Yes. But I can’t help doubting it. Would you have written so?” “What if I did? Isn’t what it says true?”
“It might have been so in the beginning, occasionally. But a comprehensive censure that not one among the Antarjanams have it in them to write, or to lecture, unless men provide them with a script to learn by heart…”
“Censure? – so what?” N. P. laughed. “So it was as a punishment for it that I was deprived of my coffee? I know men themselves are the culprits for this. We lifted you up. And you obliged, scraping the skies. But we could drop you back…, beware!”
“We are well aware of that”, Pappy laughed along. “Please don’t take offence at the truth. You lifted us up? Who do you think lifted you? How many are the young leading lights strutting about mouthing speeches written for them, and steal essays from the likes of Asan. Even this article in truth…”
“Quiet!” roared her husband. “So you think I don’t have it in me to write an article…”
She was not the wife to be cowed down. She continued tactfully:
“I did not say that, did I? True, you might have given lectures and written articles several times. But it is only when this company assembles that…“
“Occasionally, when I am inundated with work, I might have got somebody else to write them. Otherwise, it has never happened,” said the slightly sobered husband.
“Yes, that is all I too claim. How much more work is there to overwhelm our Antarjanams than Namboodiri men? So at times, they too may resort to an occasional ghost writer. If you then make the blanket statement that there are no genuine writers among those housewives, it could well happen that some among them who are capable of dropping the ladle for the pen, respond in kind…”
“Oh, you people scarcely have the strength to lift a blade of grass
– let alone wielding a pen! Moreover, as I wrote, some male authors hide behind female names. Don’t take pride on that score…”
“Really? We’ll see. Anyway, it’s getting late, we should sleep.” Laughter bubbled up in her mind. Calmness prevailed. The darkness of midnight blanketed silence.
Only the sound of loud snores from here and there was to be heard in that house. Pappy silently crept up to her husband – he was in deep sleep. She quietly picked up pen and paper from the table, moved to the next room, raised the wick of the lamp burning there and began to write in haste.
N. P. was puzzled to read a strong refutation to his piece in the very next issue of the newspaper. He was certain: it could only have been written by a man. No Antharjanam, slaving and wrangling in the kitchen, worshipping the grinding stone could produce such a mature piece of writing.
He immediately sent it to his crowd of friends. After many consultations, arguments, slashes, alterations and revisions, in two or three days they turned out a piece of patchwork. Without responding to any of the serious issues, they aimed at the imaginary male hiding behind a female front, established the utter ignorance and stupidity of the female world, Antharjanams in particular, and ended pointing out their rank ingratitude to the males striving to advance their lot. It was only after he had himself travelled to the newspaper office, hand-delivered the article, and saw it published, that her husband knew peace.
“Surely nobody is going to respond to this. If the women have any dignity or respectability, they will definitely not. We have dug into them so…”, he laughed, exulting with his friends. Another six or seven days went by. He waited impatiently for the next issue of the newspaper and the first thing he saw when he opened it was: “The Blindness of Nambudiri Youth – or Arrogance… they believe it is they who turn the wheel of time… They brag that without them, no one in society, especially not women, would have any existence. Even granting that premise, to inculcate self-respect and then abuse its exercise, is like treating a patient to cure and then killing her. Revelling in a self-indulgent world bereft of responsibility, present-day youth believe that by some sleight they can, for their own convenience, convert women into puppets dancing to their whim. Again, granted. But to be locked up in the kitchen and then be accused of being powerless – is that fair? We do not have the education to write essays. We are not used to giving lectures. Yet it is an open secret that men who have ample benefit of such opportunities, cannot write or talk without the assistance of their personal secretaries…”
So the article went, enlightening with appropriate analogies and telling arguments, effectively tearing apart the earlier piece point by point, but not attacking personalities or hiding truths. That essay, coming from an Antharjanam, left N. P. sweating, pale, and stunned. He hastily sent out messengers to summon his cronies, but did not have much success. Some of them who were schoolmasters had gone home to their native places as it was vacation time. Others had business engagements. The one or two left had not a ray of daylight between them to think up a reply. Dejected, N. P. collapsed in a reclining chair, sunk in deep thought for a very long time. He laid out paper and pen on the table and walked up and down like a caged bull. But no inspiration came, not an idea… He seemed bereft of all pride and dignity. A shame to be beaten by a woman!
He eschewed dinner, did not go to his card game. Nor did he talk to anybody. Like one, battered and tired, he fell on his bed and slept. He dreamt of a monstrous woman trying to strangle him and woke up with a start. Pappy was nowhere to be seen. He silently walked into the next room. There she was, squatted on the bare floor and urgently writing something. He approached her surreptitiously and snatched up the paper. Startled, she turned around then turned down again with a bashful smile.
He read through the pages hungrily, then asked her with glee: “A come back to today’s essay? Excellent. Who showed you that piece, Pappy?”
“The very person who wrote it”, Pappy had a guilty smile. “Who wrote it?” He urged eagerly.
She looked down: “The same one who wrote this.”
He asked in rank amazement: “So the one who opposed me all these days was you… one’s own wife attacks the husband…”
“Oh no, please don’t say that”, she objected spiritedly. “No, it was not me – it was the pride and self-respect of the Namboodiri women. It was the evidence of morale among a powerless, recently prodded-awake group. You gave us the incentive and the impetus to think and to express ourselves. And then assumed monopoly for all thought and expression! If an occasional writing surfaces from a woman, the question is raised: Is it desirable? And now may we raise the same question, is this desirable? But that writing was done by a society. This piece is by an individual… your deep distress today pained me so much. So “I” tried to turn against “us”. Pardon me, please.”
That husband was left speechless. Spilling over with happiness, he said: “Pappy! You are my pride and joy. No response is needed. You are welcome to better me with the last word – that is my victory too!” With that he tore the paper into small bits and threw it away.
(The original in Malayalam is titled “Itu Aasasyamaano?”. Teranjedutha Kadhakal. Kottayam: Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham, 1966.)
Translated by Sreedevi K. Nair
SREEDEVI K. NAIR. Is Associate Professor of English, NSS College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Her interest areas are Translation Studies and Women’s Writing. All the stories in this issue of Samyukta are translated by her.