The women of the remote village, weaned on tales of Sheelavathi and Savithri, could not in any way justify Vanaja’s egotistic behavior.
‘Shouldn’t women be more circumspect and modest?’ ‘Have you ever seen such arrogance?’
Vanaja repelled the many arrows shot her way without turning a
Did Vanaja really commit a grave sin or a serious lapse of conduct?
She just stuck to a decision that she felt was right. But Vanaja’s husband, Neelalohithan, felt that her decision was unjust. Without the least qualm, he used his power.
Vanaja was born in a very poor Namboothiri family. She was the eighth daughter of her parents. She had seven older sisters. Vanaja was born on a stormy midnight in a home strangled by poverty on one side and conventionality on the other.
‘An eighth daughter!’ The mother lying on the birthing mat heard the announcement, sobbed and covered her face. As she bathed in the river, she prayed to the river in spate, ‘Please take my life, O God.’
The river did not oblige. As she returned after the ritual bath, the antharjanam heard her husband’s elder brother remark from outside her room.
‘The child’s horoscope is unique.’
The uncle’s words did not turn out to be valueless. Even as a child Vanaja made her difference and uniqueness apparent. When her elder sisters played kothukallu or vattu, she was never to be found in their midst.
‘Where is the child?’
Her mother’s search time and again ended in the attic. The child would often locate the old numbers of magazines like Rasika Ranjini or Unni Namboothiri lying forgotten in the attic, coated with dust, grime and even white ants. The mother often sighed as she looked at the sunken cheeks and the emaciated body of her child.
All her seven elder sisters had never seen a school. Yet Vanaja insisted on going and wouldn’t let her father alone.
‘I want to go to school.’
‘We need money for that,’ her father professed helplessness. ‘I have the money for books.’
‘How did you manage to get the money?’ The father was surprised.
‘I collected cashew nuts from our ancestral home. Usually they eat the fruit and throw away the nuts. I collected the nuts for I had heard Nani, our servant say that the cashew nuts can be sold. She sold the nuts for me and gave me the money.’
‘The school is four kilometers away. Won’t you need money for the bus?’ Her father raised more obstacles.
‘No, I’ll walk to school.’
‘Will you walk alone, when others in your class go by bus?’ ‘Yes. I’ll walk. What does it matter that I walk alone? Won’t there
be people on the road?’
So, everyday Vanaja walked eight kilometers to and from her school. At lunch recess, all the other children went off with their lunch
boxes. Vanaja alone remained in her seat or sat on the bench in the verandah or retired to the girl’s room to read or to write.
‘Can’t you do your homework at night when you get home?’ Her friends would ask when they returned after lunch. Vanaja just smiled at them. Why should she tell her friends that her father could not spend much on kerosene?
Vanaja passed her tenth standard, scoring very high marks. When her classmates heard of this, they closed in on her and congratulated her with a tinge of envy. Even then, Vanaja held her head at her usual slant and smiled her usual smile. She did not stand up straight, wave her arms about and declare, ‘I expected much more marks.’ Neither did she in mock humility say, ‘I did not expect to get such high marks.’
Vanaja went to college on a scholarship. She wore khaddar saris bought as exchange for the cotton thread her sister spun at the charka. She understood the utter disdain with which the perfumed, nylon-clad and georgette-draped Jasmine and Mrinalini looked at her khaddar sari. Normally Vanaja did not notice the changing fashions or the love stories that went on around her. Each one had a different dharma after all. But when their satire transformed into sharp words, she had no qualms in gravely countering it.
‘If you think I have no words to answer you, you’d be a total fool.’
With that, for a long time, such irritants could be held at bay. Her classmates had to concede that Vanaja was special. Yet Vanaja did not consider any of this special or important. She worked as hard as she could and desisted from doing anything she considered wrong.
After five years in college, Vanaja graduated with comparatively good grades. Though she had to put in many applications and appeals, she got a job in a bank. Her uncle said, ‘Jupiter is in the eleventh house, according to her horoscope and that will become apparent . . . ’
Jupiter was at his most benign. Vanaja’s neighbour Bhargavi asked her once, ‘My daughter is in her tenth class. She is not smart at her studies. Could you help her?’
Vanaja did not decline.
But there were many mothers like Bhargavi, who all had daughters who were not smart in studies. Many like Savithri Marwalamma, Kavammani, Thampuratty and Kunjukutty Varasyar used the opportunity. When their daughters studied well and fared well in their exams, the tuition class of Vanaja teacher became famous in the neighborhood. There was a deluge of people who sought knowledge. Vanaja did not refuse for she respected the pursuit of knowledge. After her job, she just took time to drink a cup of coffee before teaching till late at night. She had two or three batches of students. She also made a lot of money. She had made work a kind of religion. It was to such a person as Vanaja that her husband requested that she give up her job.
‘Why should I resign?’ Vanaja calmly asked her husband. ‘Should you work in the same place that Venugopalan is working?’
‘Can I get a transfer easily? Besides, Venugopalan has never done me any harm.’
‘He’s done you a good turn then, has he? That’s enough,’ her husband was affronted.
It ended so that day. Yet it was an irritant that grew worse. ‘Have you decided to go on with your job?’ He asked in the
authoritative tone of a husband. ‘Yes.’
‘Why are you so insistent?’ ‘What kind of a question is that?’ ‘I don’t like my wife to work.’
When she heard this, Vanaja stood straight and stared at her husband’s face. Everything she didn’t say was there in her look. Her husband, at a loss for further words, had to turn away from the eloquent glance. But the next day, when Vanaja draped her sari and snatched up her lunch box, he interfered.
‘You need to make up your mind.’
‘You make up your mind. I’ve no intention of resigning.’
‘Is the job more important to you than your husband?’
Vanaja did not reply. She murmured to herself. ‘My husband is my husband. My job is my job. Venugopalan is Venugopalan.’ She walked briskly away without a backward glance. She couldn’t afford to miss the bus.
It was after Vanaja got her job that her sisters were married off. As soon as one marriage was over, it was time for the next. Her father was anxious all the time. He had to go to Namboothiri homes from Kasargode to Thiruvananthapuram. At last it was Vanaja’s turn.
‘In Vanaja’s case, I didn’t have to spend a penny. I didn’t even have to step out of the house. People with education and jobs came here with proposals for her.’ That was true. Many young men wanted to marry Vanaja. It was Neelalohithan who drew the lot, for it was his horoscope that matched hers. Vanaja did not register protest. He had a respectable job and an adequate salary. He was not ill looking. The financial and social status of his illam, his ancestral home was also not bad. It was a marriage proposal that had much to recommend it. Vanaja resolved to acquiesce with the wishes of her family. Who could predict the future?
Vanaja had never considered her marital life a failure. There would be differences of opinion between two individuals. That was normal. It was always possible to adjust. When they had two children, both became a little more enthusiastic if anything about their family.
It was then that the unexpected happened. Her husband quarreled with his superior officer and resigned his job. At first Vanaja could not believe his declaration. She felt that he was joking. But the next day, when he did not bathe or get ready to leave for office, she was convinced of the seriousness of his remarks. She tried to persuade him to go to his office.
‘Isn’t it possible to talk it over?’
‘It is a prestige issue. Should I kowtow to him? I want to trample him on the road.’
‘Then why don’t you try for another job?’
‘I can’t. Are there many other jobs on offer?’ The husband began to stay at home.
One day Vanaja said, ‘The land around the house is in a pretty bad shape. You could get a handyman to work on it, especially the area around the coconut tree.’
‘Don’t we need money for that?’
‘Then why don’t you do it yourself when you have time. On Sundays I too will help.’
Holding a half burnt cigarette in his left hand, her husband looked at her, a look that said – ‘You can say that, can’t you?’
Vanaja did not take his look seriously. Neither that look, nor many others.
As soon as she got her salary, she would send her father some money. She did this before spending on any other thing. Her father was bedridden. Her husband ordered that she should not send her father any money. It was something she had been doing for such a long time. Vanaja did not say either yes or no. She did what she had been doing. When her husband learned of it, he was furious – ‘You sent your father money, didn’t you?’
‘I told you not to, didn’t I?’
Vanaja stood up straight. She shot her husband an angry and eloquent look – ‘I am neither Seetha nor Savithri, my dear husband. I am only a woman who desires to live without much hardship and who is willing to work for my livelihood. I tend to look at what my husband is saying, not who he is. To me my husband is not God. He is just a man.’
As the words danced on the tip of her tongue, her husband’s harsh words reached her, ‘Did you think about the expenses in our house when you sent the money?’
‘Yes. When we are living on one person’s income, we’ll have to make a number of adjustments. That doesn’t mean that I cannot send money to my father.’
Neelalohithan could only stare at her. Another day he stood before Kochammu’s shop with an extended hand.
‘Kochammu, give me two beedies.’
‘Ah, ah! So have you stopped smoking cigarettes?’ ‘Your wife may not have given you money, is it so?’
The last sarcastic comment was from Sukumaran. Neelalohithan belched smoke and fire. If it were just Sukumaran who said so, it would have been bearable. In the temple, Madhavan of the Variyam said.
‘So, you’ve got out of the rat race, haven’t you? It’s great to have a wife who is working.’ He felt that all considered him in this light. None were aware of his true value. What was the way out of this situation? Neelalohithan pondered about this all the time, while he was walking, sitting or lying down. At last he found a way. Why should his wife have an attribute he didn’t have? Her work and her savings!
It was then that the Venugopalan dilemma emerged. It was true that Venugopalan was a highly strung and emotional chap. The slightest compliment or token was enough—he would immediately conclude that it was a sign of love. Then would emerge a tangled web. On one such occasion, Venugopalan began reaching out emotionally to Vanaja and attempted to speak to her. After hearing him through, Vanaja spoke firmly and seriously to Venugopalan. With deliberation she reminded him, ‘Venugopalan, there are so many other things to do and to think over. Take life a little more seriously. Right now, improve your work.’
Vanaja turned away from him and resumed her seat. That problem was solved for some time. Her husband knew of this. He was now looking for such an excuse.
When she returned from the office, there were just the children and her servant. The servant seemed slightly at a loss and went after Vanaja into the house to whisper, ‘Milord has gone.’
Though she did not say anything more to the servant, Vanaja had not expected desertion from her husband. Has life lost all sense? Vanaja believed that her decisions were as clear and pure as the sunlight. Yet he didn’t attempt to understand them. She stood on the bedroom gazing for a long time at their wedding photo. Then, with a deep sigh she turned to her daily activities.
Just as she expected, a number of middle men and mediators arrived. Neighbours, relatives, friends, well wishers–there were quite a few of them.
‘Whatever be the reason, isn’t he your husband? Can’t you stoop a little, Vanaja?’
‘Don’t you have two children? Isn’t your husband more important than your job?’
‘The disgrace to your family! And aren’t you young?’
‘What if I were old?’ Vanaja retorted when she heard the arguments over and over again. She was so exasperated that she was forced finally to say very firmly.
‘Don’t come here to say this again. I shall never give up my job.’
In one voice, the neighbors and relatives exclaimed, ‘What a woman! A woman should never ever be so arrogant. Even if you have only kanji to drink, isn’t it better to share it with your spouse?’
Vanaja did not choose to listen to what opinion others seemed to have about her. She had tasted the bitterness of life before. This too she would taste. She put a lid on all her troubles. She didn’t spill a tear. She worked meticulously and brought up her children with dignity. Only the wise servant woman thought.
‘My poor lady has grown very thin.’
The rains the day before had quite despoiled the land around. The plantain trees, ready for harvest, lay helter skelter on the ground. Vanaja leaned on the pillars of the verandah and surveyed the trail of destruction. Images of her husband working on the land and instructing the laborers flashed on her memory. She had never anticipated this unhappy turn of
events. Well, what’s past is past. What’s the use of thinking about the past and mourning about it? Good times would return.
Vanaja caught hold of a spade. The almond tree’s roots were showing, for most of the soil at its base had been washed away. She bent to put soil on its base. The sound of the gate opening made her turn around.
Yes. It was he. Abandoning the spade and shaking the soil from her hand, Vanaja reached her husband. His clothes and appearance were shabby. Clasping his hands he said, ‘Please forgive me.’ He had thought that when Vanaja heard this, she would be inundated with happiness and running to him would embrace him; fall on his shoulders at a loss of words and bathed in tears. She walked to him and smiled, much as she smiled when he came back from the office. As usual, she went into the house, obviously to make him a cup of coffee.
Neelalohithan felt embarrassed. Che! Had he erred in coming back? Shouldn’t he leave at once? He had thought he would miss his children when he went away from home. But it was being away from Vanaja that hurt him most. Her unique personality. Her nobility. He remembered all this. Vanaja grew in stature in his mind all the time. So big was this Vanaja that he felt he could not contain her. Then when he came running, longing to see her . . .
While he was thinking thus, Vanaja returned with a cup of coffee. She was there, within touching distance, with a charming smile just as she looked when she stood before him after the rest she had, consequent on the birth of their first child.
“Pathinonnile Vyaazham” (Mounathinte Naanarthangal. Ed. N.K. Raveendran. Thrissur: Haritham Books, 1993: 89-100), translated by Hema Nair R.