Her voice was like the scrape of rusted steel. A dark purple vein on her withered neck stood out as if to brandish a war cry. The old lady adjusted her glasses and with no particular introduction, asked: Do you write, dear?
The young girl said nothing, only looked at her. Her glance wandered casually to the old lady’s head. Half the scalp seemed visible. Even so, there were a few strands of black hair here and there.
“There was a conference that Vallathol had come to…, that was before our achieving independence,” said the old lady. At the word ‘independence’, a surge of tender sentiment seemed to push her dentures out.
A sense of revulsion came over the girl. To cover up as it were, her fingers wound and unwound the fringe of the light blue shawl she wore with her churidar.
“In those days independence was more a madness! Nylons and nylexes were all burnt… only khaddar was worn. I had a black bordered sari… Then, even wearing a sari was considered fashionable…”
The girl could scarcely bear the sight of her tongue fumbling with her dentures to push it in place. She shifted her gaze to the bookshelf in the room. The top shelf held framed copies of old photographs. A prominent one in black and white, of somebody welcoming another with a garland, had the pride of place. The rest seemed to be family pictures,
all moth eaten or water-stained. The second and third shelves bore nothing but notebooks.
The girl absently turned back to the old lady.
“Grand uncle prompted me to write a poem and read it at the convention…
In our humble gardens too
The fragrance of romantic blooms.”
With the last word, the lady’s dentures again shot out. In the effort to recite the poem with appropriate rhythm, her grating voice became shrill and ended in a gurgle as if she were being strangled.
“The great poet…” as if Vallathol were standing before her, she pressed her palms together in reverent devotion.
“He called me over and laying both his hands on my head, blessed me: “Saraswati, you are Goddess Saraswati incarnate…”
She tenderly patted her head where Vallathol’s hands had rested. The girl noted that beneath the grey hair lay hidden a few more strands of black hair.
Sandalwood scent of long burnt out incense pervaded the room. Hot air blew in madly through an open window creating havoc. On a table covered with a faded cloth, stood a steel thermos which trembled slightly. A medicine cup beside it turned and rolled over, raising a medicine smell.
With all that, she had already grown fond of this room of several scents. She thought it was the best ventilated room in the house.
“Then, I was a mere nine year old…,” the old lady was saying. “But not like present day girls – I could have passed for the mid teens. It was at that convention that he first saw me and…”, she stopped abruptly.
She carefully broke an upright white thread from the fringe of her shawl with great concentration. She was wearing a mundu set with a thin red border. The white blouse was crumbling here and there, likely with age.
The old lady got up in some apparent agitation and wandered to the corner of the room where the shelf was. She sat on the chair beside it and took books out, one at a time, and turned the pages carefully.
The girl felt that the chair was a fixture there and that the old lady must have been constantly in it picking out books.
She now picked one: “Not this… it is one with a red cover…”, she said with much vigour.
The girl started.
The lady’s continued handling of the books threw up enough dust to set her sneezing.
The old lady turned to look at her with no modicum of sympathy.
“I too had this occasionally…”, she took out another book and opened it.
“That is how the book got lost. Because of the sneezing, I was reluctant to deal with old newspapers or the children’s notebooks, to put them in order. This book was somewhere… somehow… the sight of old newspapers scattered around incensed my husband. They had to be all stacked up. There could not be any dust or litter anywhere. The place had to be swept clean constantly.”
She heaved a deep sigh, trembling. “Who thought such a need would arise in old age?”
It touched the girl’s heart. True. Who knows…? The lady replaced that book and took the next one.
“When I wrote the first story, he was in jail. Those were days when communists were arrested on sight…”
As she voiced the word ‘story’, her dentures shook grotesquely. The girl could bear it no longer and moved to the window. An aggressive wind blew her hair across the face. When she tried to smooth out the strands, her fingers brushed against the sindhur on the parting in her hair. Mixed with perspiration it stuck to her finger tip for a moment like a drop of blood, then slowly fell off to die.
The lady was on to turning the pages of the next book.
“It was Ramankutty’s old notebook. The story was written at night under a lamp, hiding from my mother-in-law, in a corner of this room. Mother’s fury rose at any reading or writing. What earthly use is that to the family is what she asked.”
She slowly turned over the pages.
That he should have approved of the girl who had read out her poem at the conference, apparently led to a great commotion here. True. What is all this song and dance of writing for? As Mother used to say, if you are a woman, you cook meals and give birth.
She slowly turned the pages.
It was my husband who named Ramankutty. He said he was to grow up like Sri Ram. I had favoured the name, Ravindranath. Then I thought it might as well be his preference. Why pick a quarrel for nothing? Whether he answers to Ramankutty, or to Ravindranath, he remains my son. So I didn’t even think up a name for Sreekutty. He named her Sreekumari. I had told Ramankutty that when he had children, if it was a boy, he should name him Ravindranath; and if a girl, Mrinalini. Isn’t Ravindranath, Tagore’s name? And, Mrinalini his wife’s’?
When it was time to utter the name Mrinalini, the girl quickly averted her gaze out of the window.
All the same she was beginning to feel an affinity to the old woman.
“The first story was about a woman who went to jail in the cause of the freedom struggle.” When she came to the word freedom, the girl clamped her lips tight and surreptitiously ran her tongue over her teeth. Was it wobbling anywhere?
The old lady opened up another notebook.
I saved to read it to my husband… but days passed after he came out of jail, before I said I had written a story…
The girl looked in anticipation.
The old lady’s face had clouded over.
Suddenly she returned that notebook and took out another one. “Yes, it was something like this… it had blue lines like this… I had inscribed the word ‘Om’ on top of it before I began writing. At the top of my second story I wrote ‘Jai Sri Ram.’ When I wrote the second story he was in Delhi… as an MP…”
She returned the book to the shelf.
I had yearned so much to see Delhi. But I was not taken… “Later”, “later”, he said and so the time passed… For one long vacation, the children and Mother were taken to Delhi to see the sights. If I too went, who would look after the cows? Who would light the daily lamp on the tombstone above my father-in-law’s ashes? These were Mother’s questions… in any case, my trip did not work out.
The old lady leaned over to the girl as if to impart a dangerous
“That was the day I wrote my second story.” The girl now felt closer still to the old lady. “What was it about?”, she asked.
“A woman of letters… she writes stories and publishes them under
a male pseudonym in monthly news magazines. In the end one of the stories wins an award and people find their way to her home… when her husband came to know of it, he said: ‘O yes, of course, I have written it…’”
The old lady laughed, her pearly dentures in full view: “Some wishful thinking!”
When she returned that book and took another, the girl eagerly waited for the rest of the story. Leaning on the window bars, she turned towards the lady.
“What about the third story?”, she asked.
The lady was reaching out for another notebook. That was when Padmakshi came in through the door with the dishes. “Ma’am… Oh! So you have started studying for the exams”, she said in loud sarcasm. “What a long time you have been at it! When is it ever going to end?”, she winked at the young girl as if in conspiracy with a little child, and spread
out the food on the table; a small pot of rice gruel, a stainless steel flat bowl with a rounded rim for her to eat out of; one small dish with two pappadams.
“Ma’am, don’t you need to eat anything? Have this food and your afternoon medicine; then do get into bed and have a nap…, when you wake up, I will give you a sponge bath.”
“Not so much noise, girl…”, the lady good naturedly reprimanded. “I can hear!”
“Oh, so the fault is mine!”, Padmakshi’s thick lips trembled in
She turned to the girl and asked almost accusingly: “Child, why
didn’t you go to the wedding? Hadn’t Sreemon persuaded you so? Anybody would want to see his new bride.”
The girl said nothing. The old lady smiled idly.
The girl was anxious to hear the rest of the story. But the lady remained silent. She had the gruel that Padmakshi served out for her, and then walked over to the wash basin. She took her dentures out, washed them, put them in water in a glass tumbler by the basin, wiped her hands and face with the towel on the rack, then slowly walked back.
Padmakshi took out a pill from a bottle on the table and held it out with a glass of water for the lady. The girl could see the difficult descent of the pill and the water down her withered throat. For a while, the pill seemed to wage obstinate war with that purple vein, then slowly disappeared. The lady then leaned over to the bed.
The girl’s anticipation to hear the rest of the story was rising.
Padmakshi whispered: “She had an old book. Ever since she lost her memory, she has been hunting for it; in the attic, in the grain store. . . finally the mistress could stand it no longer and set out some old books of the children before her, Sreemon’s and Meenu’s. Now peace reigns; she is content to look through them one by one.”
A sigh escaped the girl.
“Come away, child. Grandma will go to sleep now. She will lie so till five o’clock.”
When she had collected the stacked dishes and had gone, the girl stood around uncertainly.
“The third story…?” It slipped out involuntarily from her.
The old lady strained to open eyes that had nearly closed and struggled to locate her in the room. Then with a cruel laugh, she said, “Ill
The girl did not comprehend.
“When you knot the rope, it should be around here, this vein” she said, touching her purple one. “Who knew that?”
The girl froze in horror.
“Shouldn’t miss that vein”, she reminded with closed eyes. “If you do, you lose your memory.”
The old lady fell silent after that.
Late at night, when Sreejith returned home, the girl was standing before the mirror with her neck stretched out, examining something. “What are you looking at?” he asked with the jealous resentment of a boss denied due respect and obeisance.
“A vein” she said, in a flutter, “memory’s vein.”
(The original in Malayalam is titled “Ormayude Njarambu”.Ormayude Njarambu. Kottayam: DC, 2002.)
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.