|They boarded a Pallavan Transport bus parked at Paris Corner bus depot, he through the front door, she through the back one. He sat down in the seat just behind the driver, she in the long seat at the back. As the bus filled up the conductor approached him. He paid for one ticket and mentioned his destination: ‘Pondicherry.’ She too bought a ticket to Pondicherry. The bus moved along the East Coast road… reached Pondicherry in two and a half hours.
He jumped down from the bus and got into the front seat of the first available taxi ; gave a one word reply to the driver’s query: ‘Auroville.’ As the taxi driver started the engine he stopped him. The next moment she appeared. Running up, she climbed into the backseat and closed the door. The taxi moved forward. She sank back with relief and closed her eyes … slowly regained an even breath.
‘Welcome again to Vassily’s cottage,’ the Russian greeted them as he led them into his European – style cottage. ‘As I didn’t get your call I even doubted whether you would come this year.’ He managed in his broken English.
‘Till the last moment we too weren’t sure we could make it .’
‘Well, come in. You can share our lunch.’
They ate the European way with fork and spoon – potatoes, salad and roasted fish.
‘What would you like for the night?’ Vassily’s cook asked.
‘Let’s have some exotic stuff out of your Russian menu. Non-vegetarian.’
‘A land where they eat rat snakes…’ he winked at her and murmured.
‘I want the middle piece. You can have the head or the tail.’
Freed from tension they burst out laughing for the first time. Though he didn’t understand Vassily joined them, just to make them happy. Just then Vassily’s daughter walked by, wearing a short frock, her calves showing. Automatically his eyes turned in that direction, followed the white girl till she disappeared. She twisted his face towards herself.
‘No don’t look. Look at me alone.’
‘Jealous cat.’ She made a face at him.
After lunch they withdrew to their room; said ‘We haven’t met for a year’ and on that excuse fell upon each other . Finally they subsided, exhausted. She ran her fingers through his balding hair…without any forewarning she began: ‘Ours is a terrible fate.
We lurk and hide like thieves to meet once in a while like this. We’re scared of every one in this world…and it’s not just that. I lie to my husband, you to your wife, continuously. Just to see each other, to kiss, to lie like this, we have to wait patiently for a whole year. At times I feel we should have got married then itself; even if we had to hurt our families. We should have considered our own peace of mind.’
He pressed her against himself –not even an ant could have got through –and comforted her by planting tiny kisses on her face and neck.
‘This deceit. It didn’t start today or yesterday. And it has to continue all our life. I’m scared.’
Lying against his chest she murmured her complaints till at last she fell asleep. When her even breathing assured him that she was fast asleep he got out of bed and rang up his wife; told her he had reached Madras safely…said:
‘I miss you a lot’. He would return as soon as the work was over. He promised he would not forget to buy the white kanchipuram sari with red border that she wanted and rang off. He returned to the room and lit a cigarette, then sat down and watched her as she slept.
In the evening they rented two bicycles and went sightseeing around Auroville. The Bermudas and T-shirt made him look ten years younger; as for her she looked like a young girl in her frock. They cycled along the red mud roads…the roads, the huge trees and the small houses that dotted the landscape were put behind at the speed of the bicycles.
‘Auroville, a place no one can claim as his own, bequeathed to the human race; only a great mind can conceive of creating such a place on earth. Aurobindo was a great man, no doubt about it.’
‘In this boundary-less land we are stifled by boundaries.’ He exalted their situation.
When they got tired of cycling they went to a coffee shop. The veranda of a house with a few cane chairs and tables scattered about – that was the coffee shop. The scent of bread being baked filled the place. They were the only Indians there. Suddenly a woman at the next table started to weep, complaining all the while in French. Her young lover kissed and caressed to comfort her. She watched them greedily from the corner of her eye; she even forgot to drink her coffee. She said: ‘I wish we too had been born in France.’
‘Women are the same everywhere; complain and cry, that’s all they do.’ She didn’t hear it, so absorbed was she in the lovemaking taking place before her.
They sat on a wooden bench and watched the sun go down among the trees. The moment it was dark he began to kiss her passionately. She sat with her eyes closed, enjoying his caresses. She didn’t notice the cars that rushed by, spraying dust; or the two children with feathers in their hats like red-Indians who went by with their mother on a motor bike, on their way to some evening party. At some point she opened her eyes and found that only his lips were involved in the act; the pupils of his eyes were as usual on the look out for a familiar face. She pushed him away angrily.
‘Who do you fear in this lonely spot? We’ll have to end this hide and seek. That’s the only way out.’
‘It would take only a moment to decide that you’ll give up your husband and I, my wife and children. But do you think we could live peacefully after inflicting pain upon so many people?’
‘Did I ever demand it? If we didn’t mind hurting others we could’ve become husband and wife such a long time ago. I can’t hurt anyone.’
‘Then this is the only way out. You lie to your husband that you’re going to visit a non-existent friend and come here once a year and I escape on the pretext of official work .We celebrate two- three days of togetherness and separate, to meet again the following year. Your family life is secure, so is mine. Everyone is happy.’
‘Except me.’ She said.
‘You have to whine…’
He hugged her. His pupils did their routine search for familiar faces while his lips kissed her. She accepted the kiss sadly. Sometime later they got up and returned to Vassily’s cottage, pushing their cycles along the road. At night as they savoured the Russian salad and chicken cooked in pineapple Vassily said: ‘Tonight there’s a bharatanatyam performance by the Auroville children at the auditorium. You can come if you’re interested. It’s at ten o’clock sharp.’
They enjoyed watching the young Europeans playing Shiva, Parvati and Ganapati. When the programme got over they walked out into the moonlit night. She hung on his arm and said: ‘If we had a daughter like that white girl I would teach her to dance; make her a Padma Subramaniam.’
‘But you always say you hate children; that you avoid getting pregnant on some excuse or the other.’
‘If we had a child I would cherish it.’ Suddenly she stopped. She looked into his eyes and said: ‘Could you give me a child, now… here?’
Caught off guard he hesitated; then tried to change the subject: ‘Let this birth go by this way. In the next birth you’ll be my wife,
I’ll be your husband and we’ll have a house full of children.’
‘I don’t want a house full of children. I want just one child. And another thing. In our next birth I’ll be the husband. You’ll be the wife. The amount of misery I’ve to go through, for being a woman in this birth! I pray to god that I be a man at least in the next. As husband I’ll take good care of you.’
‘No, that won’t do. I’ll be the husband, in the next and every other birth. You’ll be the wife. The mother of my children.’
He said ‘the mother of my children’ in a special way, looking deep into her eyes. She thrilled all over to hear it. Sensing her joy he continued: ‘Do you know how we’ll live in our next birth?…a remote village; a huge compound…about 2 acres- with lots of trees and a pond full of fish…like Auroville. In the middle of the compound a house with tiled roof and red-oxide floor and a swing cot on the veranda.’
‘That’s nice. I’m fed up of living in a flat. Its so claustrophobic.’
‘There won’t be any houses around; just a cut road bordering the compound that people can use.’
‘No, we don’t want that. I don’t want people wandering into my house. We won’t have any peace.’
“The road is a must. Suppose someone suddenly gets ill, like heart attack. We’ll need people’s help to go to the doctor.’
‘Oh, I didn’t think of that.’
‘To such a house I’ll take you- after we get married one monsoon.’
‘Oh no, get married in monsoon? Our relatives will find it inconvenient to attend the wedding. It rained heavily on my wedding day. My silk sari got all wet and clinging. It was horrible.’
‘But a stuffy room in summer is equally intolerable. Compared to that a wet sari is nothing. To continue – an evening when its raining heavily… darkness all around…the light bulb glows faintly due to poor voltage…the sound of rain falling on the tiled roof … I’ll be lying on the swing bed savouring the sound…then you’ll come in, fresh from your oil bath, hair spread out behind you, wearing settum mundum.’
‘I don’t know how to wear it. I don’t like it either.’
‘It’s in this life that you don’t know. By the time it’s next birth you’ll have learnt it.’
‘No buts. You’ll come and sit beside me on the swing bed. We’ll sit for a while enjoying the rain, talking sweet nothings. Then we’ll go inside. I’ll carry you in.’
‘Have you forgotten that you sprained your back when you tried doing it last year?’
‘In the next birth I’ll be more physically fit.’
‘You should’ve said that earlier.’
‘I’ll carry you in and throw you on to the bed. A good broad cotton mattress. It’ll still be raining heavily…you and I will lie beneath a single sheet.’
‘Without the fear of a knock on the door, of someone finding out.’
‘Yes in the next birth we’ll be husband and wife. No need to fear society.’
‘Then what, we’ll sleep.’
‘That ended like a bedroom scene in some old movie. When you get near the real thing the camera focuses on a butterfly perched on a flower.’
‘Well, don’t think I’m going to pamper you by describing it, my dear.’
‘By the time I wake up next morning you’ll have had your bath. You’ll make steaming chiratta puttu and kadala and tea and place it on the dining table; then you’ll come in, looking beautiful, to wake me up for breakfast.’
‘That’s one thing I won’t do. I can’t imagine waking up early; and having a bath that early is impossible.’
‘If you can’t bathe, fine. But no compromise on puttu and kadala. After a night without food I’ll be hungry enough to eat an elephant. So puttu and kadala should be ready on the table.’
‘I too wouldn’t have eaten anything the previous night. I too will be hungry. We’ll enter the kitchen together in the morning and toast bread or something.’ ‘You can give up that idea right now. I enter the kitchen! Why, I don’t even wash the glass in which I have tea.’
‘That’s in this birth.’
‘Not just this birth. In the next and all other births I want to eat puttu and kadala. Eat breakfast like a king goes the saying. Or the whole day will be spoilt.’
‘Whatever the saying I can’t enter the kitchen early in the morning and make puttu and kadala.’
He walked ahead angrily.
‘I want to know now. Is this chiratta puttu and kadala more important than my love?’
She shouted after him. He paused… was about to walk back when the flavour of hot steaming puttu and kadala curry descended on his tongue. He stopped vacillating; with determined steps he climbed the steps of Vassily’s cottage… as for her, she began to weep in this birth for the next.
Translated from Malayalam by Catherine Thankamma.
Egoistic assertion of self and careless dismissal of the woman’s needs and desires are intrinsic to patriarchal notions of sexual hierarchy and authority and as such do not contribute to thematic uniqueness. But Sreebala K. Menon’s treatment of the familiar theme demands translation in the context of the number of soaps being telecast these days that seem to sanction extra-marital relationships in a disturbingly subversive way. While the decision to become involved in such a relationship is a matter of personal choice sublimating it could become another tool of exercising male hegemony. Fictional representation of extra-marital relationships often has an aura of inexorable, uncontrollable passion. When it lacks authorial approval it becomes the pathetic exploitation of one or the other of the partners. In Menon’s story the woman is undoubtedly a victim of exploitation yet the actual focus is on a social reality- that whatever be the nature of man- woman relationship there is hardly any change in the status-quo. If in this birth the woman in the story is that extra something that spices up the man’s life of bland respectability, in the next she will be the traditional malayalee bride who will wake up early in the morning, have her bath, prepare the traditional time-consuming breakfast of puttu and kadala and then ‘looking beautiful’[!] will go and wake up her husband. Even in this picture of the idyllic life the lovers will lead in the next birth – conjured up to distract the woman from asking uncomfortable questions – basic issues remain the same. Menon’s thumb-nail sketch of the man is remarkable for its clarity – self centered[wants to enjoy both worlds], manipulative [manages to get the woman’s acquiescence through a clever appeal to her sympathy], egoistic [he won’t change his ways even in the fictional next birth] and autocratic[expects her to conform in every way to his image of wife.] Even the ridiculous reference to the incident when he sprained his back while romantically trying to carry her across the threshold serves to highlight the tenacity of patriarchal expectations. The tongue-in-cheek sense of humour deflates all possibility of ascribing tragic\heroic dimensions to the lovers’ plight, and prevents the narrative from descending to the level of the banal and the sordid. The short staccato sentences, the narrative technique, the refusal to grant the protagonists names, all enrich this disturbingly ironic perspective on extra-marital relationships.
CATHERINE THANKAMMA. Teaches English at R.L.V. College, Tripunithura. Her special interest is theatre. Has written and directed plays. Frequent contributor to newspapers and journals.
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