She woke up as usual, hearing the alarm but did not feel like getting up. Her whole body smarted as if slashed by a blade. Her head felt as though it were weighed down by a boulder. This uneasiness had been there for a long time. Yet she would jump up at the sound of the alarm. A practice for years. But for some reason, that day she did not want to get up. Will the earth stop moving if I don’t? She pulled the blanket over herself and curled up.
Hearing the alarm ring ceaselessly, her husband, lying beside her, woke up. He stopped it and shook her.
“Wake up. It’s late.”
“You get up.” She turned over.
He got up to put on the light and pulled off his wife’s blanket.
“Go and make tea.”
“Didn’t I say I can’t?”
Seeing the expression on her face, the husband felt bewildered. He raised his voice further:
“I’m asking you to get up and make tea.”
“You man, didn’t you hear me? Won’t you go and make tea without irritating me in the morning?”
As she saw her husband stand stock-still, staring at her, she sat up and gestured:
“Aren’t you going to the kitchen, or . . .”
Unable to confront her, he walked towards the kitchen. She felt an irrepressible joy.
Why hadn’t she used this trick during these fifteen years? The thought made her sad. She pulled the blanket back and lay down again. An enjoyable slumber. It is a real pleasure to lie covered and sleep like this in the morning.
Her husband’s voice awoke her.
“Keep it there,” she said.
As she saw him place the tea on the side-table and leave in a huff, she got up and went to the bathroom. After brushing her teeth and washing her face, she drank the tea. It isn’t bad after all. Just a little too sweet. But that doesn’t matter. It was ages since she had tea in bed in the morning. Before marriage, her mother would keep the tea on the table and only then wake her up. That had been the ritual.
Feeling refreshed after the tea, she walked towards the verandah outside. Her husband was sitting sour-faced on a cane chair, reading the newspaper. She lost her temper.
“Still with the newspaper? Aren’t you going to the kitchen? The children’s school bus will come at eight o’ clock . . .”
He looked daggers at her. But she didn’t care. Snatching the newspaper from his hands, she said:
“The puttu flour is in the cupboard. Plaintains also. It’s enough if you make puttu. And also fry pappadoms.”
“I don’t know to make puttu.”
“Do you know how to make an omelet?”
“In that case, let’s have bread and omelet today. You should learn to make tasty food from tomorrow.”
He still looked perplexed.
“There’s no time to waste. Go quickly and purchase bread. We need bananas also. It’s enough if you steam them.”
As he silently went inside, put on a shirt, took a bag and started out, she could not control her joy. She laughed heartily. He walked away, looking suspiciously at her. When he returned, she was reading the newspaper.
After some time, she felt like taking a bath. It feels really nice to bathe in the morning. During college days she would sit down to study only after her morning tea and an early bath. These days it would invariably be past one by the time she could take a bath after finishing the domestic chores. By then the water in the tank would be hot and she would feel tired.
She went inside humming a tune. Her husband was sitting near the telephone and looking up a number in the directory. It’s a real job locating a number in the directories these days.
“Haven’t you entered the kitchen yet? Did you give the children their breakfast? Make your calls in the evenings, do you hear me? Otherwise, you’ll not be able to reach office on time. I’ll be back after a bath.”
Her husband remained rooted to the spot and looked confused. She sent him forcibly to the kitchen. She wondered whether she should ring up someone. But she had no friends there. As for her mother, she was hard of hearing. Humming a tune, she walked towards the bathroom. Switched on the geyser. Applied her husband’s unguent all over the body. Rubbed medicated oil on the scalp. After some exercises, she took an elaborate bath in hot water and shampooed her hair.
Then she dabbed powder all over her body. Put on a fresh blouse and sari. Combed the hair well. She looked at her figure in the mirror. Aha! Not bad! Won’t look a day older than thirty-five. She felt satisfied after applying kohl in her eyes and putting a bindi on her forehead. As she looked into the mirror once again, she felt like singing a song. She used to sing fairly well during her student days. Even now the voice was good enough. Singing loudly, she went to the door to open it. It is bolted from outside! Who has locked the door? Why on earth has he locked the room?
Keeping her ear close to the door-pane, she listened carefully. He was calling someone over the phone. His psychiatrist friend.
“Hello, isn’t that Moorthy? Raghavan here. Please come over immediately. I don’t know why, but my wife hasn’t been okay since morning. There’s something seriously wrong. She has never uttered a word in protest these fifteen years. But she’s a totally different person today. . . . Bring the nurse with you, if possible. We may have to use force. Let us get her admitted there immediately. . . . Don’t be late. Yes, she’s locked up. . . . I’m feeling terribly frightened. Okay. Do come immediately.”
She could not hear anything more. She banged the door heavily.
“Open the door. . . . There’s nothing wrong with me. Nothing wrong with me. . . . I . . . I . . . just for fun . . . open . . . open the door . . . I have work in the kitchen. . . . open . . . open . . .”
Translated from Malayalam by P. Radhika.
B. M. Zuhara is a popular name in the field of contemporary Malayalam fiction. Her very first novel Kinaavu (1990) won her the Lalithambika Antharjanam Award for Young Writers. With the publication of four more novels – Mozhi (1991), Iruttu (1995), Nilaavu (1997) and Nizhal (1999)– her contribution to the genre has been well noticed and her stature as a serious writer indisputably established. She has also translated Arabic stories into Malayalam and published stories for children.
All her novels centre round Muslim households, particularly the women, and the focus is invariably on their lives before and after marriage. The noted Malayalam novelist and critic N. P. Mohammed wrote in his Foreword to the first edition of Kinaavu, “Muslim women have never before bothered to write a novel… A few writers, like myself, have penned some stories about those unhappy women who end their lives in tears. But they are the observations of an outsider…I have never seen their pain taking shape in their own language and style in a work of art. What attracted me to Zuhara’s novel was that she tried to remove the veil”.
Zuhara removes the veil to show not only their tears but also their smiles, to depict their weaknesses and their strengths. She makes no attempts to idealise her women characters. Goodness and virtue are never monopolised by women; they are found in abundant measure in all her fictional figures. There are no feminist posturings, no allegations or blame heaped on the male characters. It is this strong element of humanism that gives her novels a very realistic touch. The telling of plain family sagas is her forte and the novels are conspicuously bereft of the sensational and the risqué.
Doubtlessly, all Zuhara’s novels present a strong feminine perspective and what they reveal is the authenticity of her intimate knowledge of family relationships. Her women characters undergo several crises in their lives; they do not always win an unqualified victory over their environment but most of them succeed in brightening their children’s future considerably. Without permitting her female protagonists to either indulge excessively in self-pity or seek refuge in the martyr syndrome, Zuhara shows how women are the custodians of family values and protectors of domestic unity.
“Madness”, taken from her short story collection Choyichi (1992), can be seen as a representative piece. The female protagonist (unnamed, significantly enough) is a victim of monotonous, domestic drudgery and there is no reprieve from this condition unless she feigns madness. Her sad realisation that the solution is not merely temporary but also a sure path to greater distress makes the story poignant. More noteworthy is the fact that nowhere is the husband shown as the cause of her misery. Does the writer imply that he is as much a victim of office slavery as she is of the kitchen grind and therefore a more dignified sufferer? It is this small pocket of authorial silence that adds to the enduring beauty and mystery of the story.
RADHIKA P. Works as English lecturer at the Fatima Mata National College, Kollam. Her doctoral work was on Angus Wilson. Has contributed articles in research journals. Interested in translating.