Though I taught in a school for ten to fifteen years, I just don’t know how to tell a story or describe an incident in an interesting way .You see my subject was mathematics. I always thought things out carefully–added and subtracted, assessed pros and cons–then made my decisions. After all, one does not begin algebra or geometry with ‘once upon a time there was an old woman.’ So l’ll say what I have to say without literary flourishes–it’s about my death. This is how Chachimma’s daughter Sophimol described it to her brother Thommachan: `Ente Thommacha, you should have seen Thekkekandathil house on valianimai’s funeral. Ammachi and others went the previous day itself. That night the brothers and sisters had supper together, as of old. Later they sat in the front verandah. They laughed a lot, remembering old times. It was midnight when they went to bed. The next, day–well it was like a house where a wedding was to take place. Peramma’s children from Peerumedu, kochachan’s children-we were gathering like this after such a long time. No one was in the least sad.’ She laughed.
‘Pavam ‘ , Thommachan’s wife murmured.
`Annamma, you alone say that. We always say–you are the only one vaiiammai liked, perhaps because you share the same name. All that affection when you people visited her–was reserved for you alone. Thundiyile Peramma’s children hated her.’ She paused, then asked her brother, Valiachan gave you two books when you went to see him, didn’t he? Ammachi told me. I’m waiting for the children’s vacation to start. I want to get hold of one or two books. I peeped into the bedroom on the day of the funeral.. Ente Thommacha, you should see the books; rows and rows of them. But I didn’t ask as it was a house in mourning.’
Wonder which book she wants to get hold of? It’ll be difficult if she doesn’t specify because Avarachan’s taste in books went beyond one or two subjects–history, literature, astronomy, photography…books about Aurobindo and the Mother. Some of the books are more than a hundred years old. She might want one of those. Subject doesn’t matter if the purpose is to decorate the teapoy. Once the woman is gone, the house is no longer home; it’s a half-way house; anyone can come or leave, get hold of whatever they want–books, bell metal utensils, wooden chests with copper inlay; lots of such collector’s pieces at Thekkekandam. But the question is; do I, who got married at forty one and died childless qualify for that title…
I lay paralyzed for four months, only then did I die. I feel sorry for Avarachan. Pavam, he suffered a lot. At first he would remain by my side during the day and spend the night at his younger brother Ouseppachan’s house. Later he began to stay the nights too. Avarachan could never sit in a chair for long–his ankles get swollen. My tongue had ceased to follow my will yet I managed to communicate that I didn’t need anyone in the hospital. The nurses take care of all my needs, I said. He just patted my arm and said
‘I’ll be here.’ Once Avarachan has made up his mind he won’t budge.
There was no dearth of visitors and helpers–Achamma, Achamma’s daughter-in-law Aelikutty, Ouseppachan’s daughter Lucy, Marimma from Peerumedu , and lots of others. It was from my home that no one came. They are all working people, with problems of their own. Even then my younger sister came from Kollam, a week before I died. She came by an early morning bus and left by the evening Venad express. Chachimma was there that day. She muttered to Achamma, The younger sister can’t stay even for a night. We must do all the nursing.’ You must be wondering how I heard it. I’ll tell you. Once the body submits to the control of tubes, the spirit is free. During that interval between life and death- when you are neither alive nor dead–when the spirit wanders about without moorings either here or there–one can see everything, hear everything, understand things that were incomprehensible before. But this knowledge cannot be shared with the living.
So, I saw, heard, understood.
`Poor Avarachan. What an expense.’
I asked myself, why do they come?
Answer: If they don’t the world will hold them guilty.
Question: World? Isn’t that that too big a word?
Answer: I meant, relatives, acquaintances.
`When Vareethu came to inform me that she had a fall I rushed here, didn’t even wait to change my mundu.’
`Annamma is lucky to have a sister-in-law like you, ente Achamme.’
Blessed are those who have the world on their side. If they hadn’t come the world would have accused them, sympathised at my helpless state. But now the world is on their side. It’s I who am guilty. We had arranged this marriage with such care and see what it’s come to.’
I never wanted to be a burden for anyone. Even while at college I decided not to marry. When I got a job, financial security was also assured. One day–it was a Monday–the two of us were alone in the staff room when Thresi teacher said, ‘Annamma teacher shouldn’t misunderstand. I’m saying this because I’ve a lot more experience of the world. This decision of yours to stay unmarried will create problems later. After a certain age you need someone to call your own. How long will you stay in a hostel like this? When you grow old and feeble you’ll become a burden for your own family.’
I just smiled.
On Wednesday when I returned from school I found my brother standing in the verandah in front of the visitor’s room. I hurried towards him.
`Aye, Appachan’s fine. I came about something else .’
We went inside. My brother said, ‘A proposal has come. Syrian catholic, good family. 52 years old. Just he and his younger brother, he too is unmarried. Appachan says he’s keen to see kochamma married before he dies.’
Thresi teacher’s advice. My brother’s arrival. Jehovah seemed to be indicating the path I should take.
Marriage enabled me to discover a part of myself that I never knew existed. Thekkekandathil house had remained orphaned ever since amma’s death ten years before. Avarachan told me that the tiny room near the kitchen was the maternity ward for all the cats in the neighbourhood.
I donned the role of housewife with all the enthusiasm of a child playing house-bought new vessels, stitched new curtains and hung them up, arranged fresh hibiscus flowers in a kindi and placed it on the drawing room table. The house now had a phone, a fridge, a gas connection… sisters- in- law and their children began to come down to stay.
One day Avarachan asked me, ‘Annamine, do you like travel?’
`Why, do you have plans of going somewhere?’
`Hm. I go to Pondicherry every two months or so. There’s an ashram there. I stay there for about ten days. It’s a nice place. Then I go to Peerumedu to visit my dead sister’s children. Would you like to come?’
I thought. When a man decides to marry so late in life it must be because he wants a companion, someone to talk to. So I should go. I had only one doubt. What about Philipputty ?
Without looking up–with his usual shy smile, Philipputty said, ‘There’s Vareethu’s tea stall. Chedathi, you go..’
When on our return we got down at Kidangara bridge, Vareethu came out of his tea stall grinning. ‘Now that he’s got the taste of home-cooked food, Kochumuthalali doesn’t relish the food here anymore.’
I felt very happy when I heard it; for I had often wondered whether my griha pravesham had disturbed Philipputty’s accustomed way of life. After all, how does one know the thoughts of someone who limits all his transactions to a shy smile?
The first two months in hospital were spent listening to the murmurs and irritated whisperings of Avarachan’s relatives, uttered with total unconcern for the live eyes in my paralyzed body, while Avarachan slept on the sofa. But once the tubes took over, this helpless state came to an end. Sarcastic remarks, hurting comments, the mindset that prompted them–I viewed it all objectively, with the detached interest of working out an equation; an experience that reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s Blue Lenses which Avarachan once read out for me.
A ceremonial visit to Chachimma’s house after our marriage. Chachimma’s professor husband said with a laugh, ‘Come in, come in, Laurel and Hardy. Someone laughed. I didn’t understand. I thought it was some reference to English literature. Later when I asked Avarachan he said it was a reference to our height difference and changed the subject. I came from an ordinary middleclass family. Everyone was always engaged in doing something. Jokes and idle conversations were totally alien to me. For that very reason I. was the one who most enjoyed the jokes Zacharia sir cracked in the staff room. It must be wonderful to face life so lightheartedly, I thought. But Eappachan’s jokes were of a different kind. Laced with cruel sarcasm, they reflected insecurity, as though he hated his own self, Now I understand it all. Wit was the weapon Eappachan used to confront his famous colleagues in college and his more successful brothers in the family. But the prey squirming with pain didn’t ‘recognise the handle less double-edged sword wielded against him.
Avarachan’s sisters resented our tours. ‘I advised Avarachan to marry so that there would be someone to look after the house.’ Chachimma once told me, `When Amma was alive any unexpected visitor could be sure of getting lunch with at least three types of curry.’
`That kind of lifestyle is a thing of the past, isn’t it? These days the paddy fields yield just enough rice to meet the family’s needs,’ I said.
`Why did you give up your job? You would have your salary,’
Once Achamma’s two daughters came with their children. Avarachan and I were to leave for Pondicherry the next day. So there were no snacks in the house. I was very upset. ‘There’s nothing to give the children,’ I said. ‘Oh, we expected that. We came prepared.’ Lalimma said. Laughing, she walked towards the kitchen and quickly prepared pazham pori with the bananas she had brought. It was only in hospital that I realised how much the incident had hurt me. I reminded Lalimma of it. My tongue refusing to utter the sounds as I willed them, and thereby made a parody of my hurt. That too became part of the fare to regale visitors. Also the reason for the fall. ‘She just won’t keep a servant. She’s scared to engage young girls.’
My eyes moved towards the sofa where Avarachan lay, his eyes closed. I remembered what he had once said, ‘Tired of the food served in Vareethu’s tea stall, we once arranged with boatman Kumaran for his sister to come and cook for us. The next two days were heaven–we had kaya mezhukkupuratti and kachia mom and karimmeen pollichathu for lunch. The third day Achamma arrived and packed her of I guess she was scared that Philipputty or I might develop a passion for her. It was after that incident that they began to persuade me to get married.’
I died around noon, so the body was kept in the mortuary for the night. We reached home around eleven the next day. The Kargil box was placed in the tent that had been put up in the front courtyard. Pavam Avarachan ordered that coffin in a fit of vengeance. He wasn’t sleeping all the time he lay on the sofa with eyes closed. The box provoked curiosity and anger.
‘Rosamma says it cost a lakh.’
`Really, I don’t believe it.’
`It’s the truth. What was the need for all this?’
It’s customary to place chairs beside the coffin for members of the family. The two chairs someone placed near mine stood vacant. Avarachan sat in his arm chair on the verandah. My family stood together in one corner of the pandal. Ouseppachan said there was no need to engage a video photographer to film the funeral. That was wise. The moment people see a video camera focused on them they begin to weep. The poor camera man becomes flustered not knowing where to focus. I realised this when Eappachan died. The entire funeral was copied on video for his son in Dubai and the cassette was sent along with a friend who had come on holiday. One month after Eappachan’s death his son saw the ceremony on video; overcome with grief, he fainted. It was Chachimma who told me about it. Such is the power of video pictures.
`Just the hospital expenses came to two lakh rupees.’
`Well thank god she didn’t lie in a coma for long.’
`That’s true. Avarachan had bequeathed his share of the paddy field to Annamma. Eappachan used to say if Avarachan dies first, Annamma’s brother will get the land.’
Avarachan lay as usual in his arm chair, his eyes closed. Yesterday night when the reminiscences were over and everyone went to bed — as Sophimol told her brother–Avarachan continued to sit there, staring at the river that flowed in front of the house.
The Priest’s speech lasted hardly a minute. Then the ritual prayer and the moment for the final leave taking. As there was no video camera nobody seemed keen to kiss the corpse.
Seven kisses in all. Three genuine, four frauds. The scene was repeated at the grave yard. The kisses went down to three. Two genuine, one fraud. The other frauds drew back frightened by the dark depths of the crypt. Even for hypocritical practices one has to draw the line somewhere.
After the burial my family bid farewell to Avarachan in the church premises and departed. Close relatives who returned to the house were served black coffee by the servant Chachimma brought from Changanacherry.
When Avarachan moved towards our bedroom, Chachimma gently drew him away. ‘Don’t sleep there.’ She directed him towards the guest room opposite the prayer room. As he sat down on the cot Avarachan smiled.
`Why are you smiling?’ Chachimma asked.
`Nothing.’Avarachan said, continuing to smile. I know what that smile means. The room-change has a significance that Chachimma doesn’t realise. Unable to bear the hospital expenses, Avarachan sold the house and adjoining one and a half acres of land–with Philipputty’s consent–to Ouseppachan. Ouseppachan is planning to build a resort there. It’s the ideal place for a resort but Avarachan and Philipputty who never earned a salary have now become pensioners–because of me.
I have often wondered, did Avarachan ever regret the momentary weakness that led him to agree to our marriage. I got my answer when I lay in hospital. There are some relationships that do not need blood ties or offspring to sustain them. Ours was one of them… old habits continue to haunt even in death. I tallied my losses and gains. Losses exceed in number. Gains add up to just two. I got to know Avarachan. I spent twenty three years with him.
Translated from Malayalam by Catherine Thankamma.
CATHERINE THANKAMMA. Teachers English at R.L.V. College, Tripunithura. She has published many short stories. Her special interest is theatre and she has written and directed several plays. A frequent contributor to newspapers and journals, Catherine Thankamma is also a proficient translator.