“Throw away that book, Santi,” said Sushama breaking the mid-noon silence below the casuarina tree in the Women’s College campus. Grabbing the copy of ‘Remanan’ from my hands and throwing it on the floor, she continued, “What’s there so much to read in it?”
“Isn’t that for me to decide?” I made her sit down pulling her down by her saree. “But why take your anger out on that book? It is a crime to spoil the books of the college library.”
|Sushama recited a few lines in response.
“I shall take all the blame
Do not misunderstand, dear
I regard nothing in this life
More precious than you.”
“That last is a lie.”
Hugging me, Sushama said, “Never have I loved another one as I do you, dear.”
In a voice full of mockery I replied, “At least I have been fortunate in winning Rani’s priceless love.”
Sushama’s face reddened. “Santi, I have told you a hundred times not to call me Rani. Poor girls! What do they know? What is the plight of the moth that jumps into fire lured by its deadly flames? I know that my company is not good for anybody.”
“Then why have you befriended me?”
“Oh that? I have seen that you are not to be easily influenced. Your pleasant nature drew me to you. By some instinct carried over from past lives, I got the feeling that we have been friends for ever so long. Moreover, the name Santi is dear to me.”
“Even so, Sushi, why do you pretend to be so haughty?”
“Oh, overindulgence spoils everyone. Have you any idea what I can do with my tears? I am never punished for my sins. Leave that, Santi.”
Picking up the book that had fallen some way off, she continued, What is your opinion of Chandrika in ‘Remanan?”
“What kind of question is that?” The extreme hatred I had for Chandrika heated up my blood. “What can be said in favour of her? Didn’t she deceive, just for sheer temporal, material cravings, her poor lover who, completely intoxicated by the spirit of love, wandered about singing happily? This bowl of gold, brimming with venom is not the soft glow of moon. It is a treacherous comet emitting poisonous vapours. She is a glowing ember wrapped in silk who scorched the tender body of that young lute playing shepherd with scalding flames giving out the toxic smoke of shameless guile and——“
“Do speak softly, Santam.” Sushama putting her rosy palm over my mouth, said,” Do not get so agitated. Why, are you this fond of Remanan? That’s nice! If only Remanan had known that the heart that withered in love could flower again and bloom at the showers of love of one carried away by a passion for literature, he might never have thought of suicide.”
Taking away her hands she continued, “However, Santam, shouldn’t you think of the circumstances that led Chandrika, born into the female species- the sex respectfully addressed by men as frail and fickle-to commit such a cruel act of deception, before you judge her so mercilessly?”
“Why didn’t she think of all that at first? Didn’t she boast that ‘even if the sun itself were to burn out, her lamp of love would steadfastly shine’? Didn’t she heroically proclaim that ‘she was willing enough to go about begging with an alms bowl for the fulfillment of her sublime love?’ Alas! To think that she was only bringing down eternal shame and disrepute to women as a whole!”
“Ha!” Sushama was always eager to tease me, “Are you afraid that no man would lay claim to your love again? Hey, you need have no such fears, Santi. Men believe that there is no reason to look a gift horse in the mouth. Anyway, when profit and loss is finally calculated, the benefits are for him; for her the losses. Her innocence is destroyed, chastity squandered. She becomes an object of disgrace, her heart broken. Isn’t man thoroughly liberated from restrictions? Whatever thrill he gets out of the union, so much to his savour. For her the curse of parents, the contempt of society, hatred of the people, notoriety, blame, iniquity. Even worse, God’s retribution in the form of an unwanted pregnancy.”
A soft breeze passed over the book, ‘Remanan’, lying on the floor turning its pages; then wafted into the interiors of the college building. Sushama gathered together the strands of thought that had taken a turn. “We should not be condemning and cursing Chandrika. On the other hand, we should be respecting and condoning her stand. After all, she did punish a man, in however small a degree, and it can be seen as a woman’s revenge for all the betrayals of men on womankind for so long a time. What she did as an individual was wrong, no doubt. But she was driven to it, she had no other go. Man always sins
intentionally; but woman slips into sin in her innocence. The fact that such a trifle of a girl could not only disappoint a man so terribly, but also destroy him thoroughly should be seen as the victory of all women.”
From the music hall, graced with a statue of the Goddess Saraswathy, a song rose up and mingling with the breeze, reached to caress us. Sushama continued calmly, “Even if we were to admit that Chandrika is in the wrong, her breach of faith is not such a great crime. You see, Shantam, why didn’t that rich young girl, who ‘saw the world as wholly pure’ when viewed from her huge mansion that ‘reached upto the skies of worldly fortunes’, act according to her promises and bold declarations? “Either I must abandon my parents and remain true to my love; or from this day I have to forget that beloved lute completely.” Only when thus forced to choose between two life styles did she perceive the difference between them. In the first, everything seems sordid except the gratification of being true to her love, while in the second; the only grief is the loss of her lover. What would have been Chandrika’s state if she had sacrificed at the altar of her penniless passion ‘her comforts, her success, her enjoyments, her beauty, her dazzling youth’- elements of her life that seemed so very sweet to her? Her conscience would have been torn apart by her parents’ distress. Her heart would have been cleaved by the contempt and scorn of society. The miserable life she would have had to lead in the shepherd’s wasted hut would have drained dry the blue blood in her veins. Even if Remanan’s love, her only solace in all these troubles and tribulations, lasted deep and devout as ever, how much pleasure and contentment would it give her? God has not given man the capacity of infinite love. Don’t you, my book loving friend, know the saying ‘love is just a part of a man’s life, but for a woman it is life itself?’
“Yes, I do know that.” I said, “and isn’t it true?”
“If it is so, Santi, can Remanan at least console Chandrika, let alone make her happy and blissful? Shouldn’t she think of all such things before relinquishing the silver spoon she was born with and preparing to be the mistress of a miserable shepherd shack? Just think, if Remanan’s love too were to lessen in those pathetic conditions”—
“That would never happen,” I objected strongly, “No circumstance would be able to corrupt Remanan’s idealistic love that is totally free of physical desire. Why, hasn’t he declared that ‘I shall not besmirch the purity of my love even in the realms of my imagination?”
“There, we deviate from the subject of our discussion.” Sushama smiled even though she spoke seriously enough. “If, as you say, Remanan’s love was as chaste as all that, if it had absolutely no physical aspects, why did he find her separation so intolerable? Why did he commit suicide when she became another man’s? Why did he piteously lament that ‘While you rush onto the indomitable peaks of sensual pleasures, here I fall into the cold depths of limitless despair.’ If he had been in love with her infinitely virtuous soul rather than her tempting seductive body, why couldn’t he have comforted himself with the thought that it was not her heart that he was loosing but only the physical part of her? If you argue that Chandrika’s love was born of lust, then Remanan’s was no different. My dear Santi, the exalted love that poets project in brilliant hues does not really exist. Even a mother’s love for her child is bound by physicality. Why else would she be reluctant to part with it? So how can you claim divinity for the passing fancies of adolescence? Nobody, not even saints who renounce their sense of self, can free themselves entirely from the material plane of love. Wasn’t that why the great saint Kanwan became so engulfed with grief at the time of parting from his foster-daughter Sankuntala that he made even us-the readers- weep with him? Santam, is what I say completely wrong?”
“Maybe not, I do not know.”
“Anyway, let us assume that Remanan’s fire of passion would cool down in course of time as it gets fulfilled. What would Chandrika’s plight be if it were to die out completely? Shouldn’t the sudden flights of love be harnessed by thoughtful insight? By the time she comes to her senses, she might not be alone-she might have the responsibility of two or more children to bear. What could she do, that poor girl from a noble family, helpless and destitute, to keep alive herself and children? The fulfillment of love might be enough to have her take up a begging bowl, but not a grain of rice shall fall into it. People will avoid a girl who defied her parents to elope with a low caste man. Street boys will stone her. My dear, the cow in the picture book does not eat the grass. The world shall never acknowledge her as a goddess who renounced worldly pleasures for the sake of true love, they would rather condemn her as a harlot who forgot her filial duties in the throes of lustful cravings.”
Breathless by her excessive emotions, Sushama fell silent. My experience of the world would not allow me to contradict her. So, she continued.
“If a love transcends all temptations of the body, what is the need of physical consummation? To have progeny? When she sees the children thus born, she will realize the immensity of her sin. Hasn’t Remanan himself wondered ‘how great a shock it shall be to Chandrika’s parents, were she, the focus of their hopes, to wed a penurious shepherd singer?’
Sushama paused, expecting my response. But I only sat still, staring intently at her. She went on,
“Chandrika’s only alternative was a suicide. She confronted love first, then death, just as any other woman would do. But, declaring that ‘I shall not shed my crimson blood in oblation before them’, she cleverly backed out. And finally, seeing no other way out, she decided to ‘wander wearily through the wilderness of the marital life her parents chose for her.’
“Sushi, where do you get such ideas from? Wasn’t it her desire for the heady excitement of life, rich as red wine, that made her cling to the life that she was used to?”
“Let us suppose so then,” Sushama smiled beatifically, “Wasn’t it a better alternative altogether? Sure, Remanan suffered a lot when he was cruelly cast off. And that life was wrecked. But,think, how many more lives would have been lost if Chandrika had persisted with her passion? Her parents might not have survived the colossal ingratitude of their beloved daughter. Chandrika herself would have found it difficult to subsist on Remanan’s ardor and melody alone-the delicate body so used to the luxuries of an opulent life! She needed Kubera’s wealth, corrupt or not, rather than the noble penury of Kuchela in order to stake an existence. Was not Remanan who had always been singing, ‘this world is not an imaginary haven’, aware of all these hard facts? If Chandrika had gone on to fulfill her fervent passion, she, her lover and their penniless offspring would have passed away, off the face of this earth, one following the other. That would have been the ultimate result of her sacrifice.”
“There was an escape route, Sushi,” I said, “She could have elevated the poor shepherd boy. She could have had him leave his miserable hut for the affluence of her palatial home.”
“What? and become her slave for ever? Better still——“
“Slave? Goodness! Isn’t it she who becomes the slave as she dedicates herself at his feet and acknowledges him her master? Divine love—“
“That was not divine love, that was abiding lust. A fine infatuation. Surely Remanan’s enraptured heart must have seen not just Chandrika’s innocence and beauty, but also the profusion of jewelled ornaments on her? The way he goes on and on about their disparate status, his constant anxiety to behold his sweetheart, his ever-present fear of parting-all these prove that his love is not free of material concerns. Anyhow haven’t I from the very beginning, been stating that we, ordinary mortals, are not able to portray love on imaginary backdrops that have no substance?”
“Then are her parents the culprits?”
“Certainly, it is always the parents who are in the wrong-they are the most selfish people in this world! To think that one’s aim of life is the high social status of one’s children is the greatest wrong indeed! What can we do? They are such unreasonable people——“
Her mocking tone provoked me.
“Okay, I am an idiot, I agree. But how can you say Chandrika is a virtuous woman? Whenever Remanan who knew his own place very well, tried to back off, wasn’t it she who lured him back to her? It was Chandrika who seduced him and jilted him. He is so innocent!”
“Look, Santi, do you think a girl will approach a man begging for love? To women, self-respect is of utmost importance. Even those women who think nothing of going after sexual pleasures or simple affection would not deem to plead for true love. Chandrika must have, somehow or other, sensed something of Remanan’s feelings first. Poor girl! The caged bird that she was suddenly became enamoured. The glitter of his desire and adoration exhilarated her sus- ceptible heart. ‘An emotion that could never be effaced’ was aroused within her. Tender was her heart! She felt that she could even give up her life for the young shepherd who praised her sky high. What did that poor, rich lass who lisped enchantingly of ‘why others should get involved in these matters’ and ‘what is there to upset my parents in this pure love of their little one’ know of the world? Wasn’t Chandrika , who dissuaded Remanan whenever he tried to enlighten her on worldly matters by refusing to listen, an innocent in the ways of the world? Her eyes were opened only by the immensity of the conflict between Remanan’s love and her imminent engagement to another. This impasse stared her in the eye,rendering her totally helpless. She had only the two solutions-suicide or cheating one’s love-both sins of the same magnitude. Though in her bewilderment she felt suicide to be the better option, she did realize where her real duty lay. Petted and pampered as she was by her doting parents, she was also incapable of entering a life of untried and endless difficulties. So, her heart throbbing with pain, she bid farewell to her lover, wishing him well. Thus duty won over love in that conflict. Do you not agree that the greatest sacrifice is love for the sake of duty and not otherwise?”
“Oh, yes! What supreme magnanimity! As Lord Coverly says, one can go on and on for both sides. That is not what surprises me-how can she look her husband in the face after all the furor she created so?”
“Why should she be afraid, Santi? My friend, you have seen only men who lecture on values and virtues. Poor girl, do open your eyes wide and see what is going on around you. Men do not equate bachelorhood with celibacy the word has no such meaning anywhere in their dictionary. Those who do wrongs in the heat of seamless lust have no right to condemn those who are led astray by their immaturity-that is if they have at least some sense of justice.”
My common sense cautioned me to be silent with my limited knowledge derived solely from books.
Sushi continued, “Moreover, what did Remanan’s dearest friend, who was always proclaiming, ‘aren’t you my very life?’ actually do to him? Just like Chandrika, Madanan also continuously encouraged Remanan in his love affair. While this encouragement might have elevated Remanan into a fleeting ecstasy where he forgot his misgivings and precautions, it also drove him crazy on hearing of Chandrika’s betrayal, the unexpectedness of which made him commit suicide. Santi, if you want the harsh truth, it was the ‘two dear stars that shone in the firmament of Remanan’s life’ that finally put an end to his life. Whenever Remanan tried to withdraw sensibly from the desire to possess Chandrika, Madanan threw fuel into the fire of his hopes with the idea ‘what a great sin it is to reject a gift of so pure a love’ and set the fire ablaze. What a monumental stupidity that was! Madanan’s love actually had the opposite effect. What did Madanan, who strongly asserted that ‘he would lay down his life’ for Remanan’s secret love and dared to advise Remanan not to waste his life for a slip of a girl, do in the end? Instead of offering constant company and consolation to protect his timid friend from committing follies, he went on to denounce Fate for ‘making him also a witness to such a tragic play’, wondered what to do in abject terror and sorrow and, unable to face the reality of it, closed his eyes to his friend’s fatal disaster. What a demeaning, ridiculous, return for Remanan’s sincere devotion! A true friend is one who assists boldly in times of need, not one who retreats helplessly, distressed by an excess of love.”
Sushama stopped talking. I also remained silent, as I could not find any argument to support my point of view. I was surprised by Sushama’s eloquence since she was usually very reticent. She herself broke the silence once again.
“How can Chandrika be blamed for the fact that Remanan himself tightened the noose around his neck? After repeatedly trying to avoid the traps of fickle yearnings, when he was unable to ‘free himself from the pangs of illusion’, Remanan decided ‘to end all play-acting with a drop of blood’-didn’t he? For all his idealism when preaching on the need to ‘throw away his love into the wild river of oblivion, if found undesirable on deep reflection’, Remanan could not come to terms with the fact that Chandrika merely followed this advice. Why couldn’t he console himself on the thought that she was obeying him when agreeing to wed a man of her parents’ choice? Isn’t it a pity that worldlywise as he was, he continued to hold on to a desire that was both inappropriate and unacceptable?
“My dear Sushi, man is after all imperfect. Even divine incarnations have their flaws.” To say that Remanan has no sense of values is absolutely wrong.” I tried to argue even though I felt my words were not forceful enough. “If ‘Remanan had been like other men of the world, ready for anything,’ wouldn’t the fickle minded Chandrika have ended up with everlasting shame? She was mad with desire for him.”
“Not desire, say, the intoxication of first love. Santi , sensual desire never springs up all by itself in a girl. If you care to think long and hard, you shall see that it is inculcated by man’s constant persuasion and gathers strength only with the passage of time. Not that Remanan’s morals and control of mind are not venerable attributes. I am just trying to mitigate Chandrika’s errors within the depiction that is deliberately construed so as the readers see it all as solely the woman’s crimes. But for the inflexibility of social stipulations, Chandrika would have remained immersed in the heavenly bliss of her divine love till the very last. Moreover, what shame could have befallen her even if Remanan had had his way with her?”
I was surprised into asking, “Why not?”
“Well!” Sushama smiled, “Why be abashed when she had already married him in the noble ‘gandharva way’? And what secret is there in the world that cannot be covered up by her father’s money and power? Today’s world worships the goddess of wealth. With enough money one can execute the lover, retrieve the virginity of a pregnant woman, deem a prostitute the embodiment of chastity, make a criminal totally innocent and what not-in effect money can be used to fool the society in every way possible.”
Hearing a note of woe in her voice, I gazed at her face. I turned her flushed face towards me and asked, “Are you crying, Sushi?” Isn’t it quite appropriate that when the whole world weeps for Remanan, Sushi sheds tears in the name of Chandrika? Naturally, tastes do tend to vary everywhere, don’t they?
She got out through her sobs, “Oh, God! How fragile a creation is woman!”
The peal of the bell that started at the entrance of the college building captured the last second of that Friday’s mid-noon interval. The students lurking amid the branches of the cashew trees, underneath cool shades of leaves, behind bushes and in the shadow of walls were brought to light by that call to duty. Sushama got up, holding me by hand and said, “Let us skip the afternoon classes. We can sit somewhere out of sight and talk to our heart’s content.”
“I totally agree. The only hitch is that I shall end up with a fine.”
“What about me?”
“Oh, not you! You are the daughter of a high official, aren’t you? The principal will just laughingly ask you not to repeat the mistake and let you go scot free.”
We sat and talked of our year old friendship as all around us students hurried into the college building bearing piles of books and wearing colourful dresses. When Sushama Rani had arrived from Ernakulam to join the junior graduate course, the girls had mocked her high and mighty airs and sarcastically shortened her name to Rani meaning queen. Yet, instead of going along with the daughters of officials as highly placed as her father, she had tried to befriend me, a girl of a class two years junior to her. When I hinted that, she replied,
“I have never seen a girl as popular as you are. Who can sincerely relate with so many friends as you do? And how soon did I earn the first place among them! Do you remember a wrong I did you sometime ago?”
“How can I forget the time you dragged me away as I was about to join some girls in the library who were reading ‘Manimuzhakkam’? You said that what interested them was the story of a fool who hanged himself because he couldn’t get the girl he wanted and we wouldn’t stoop to hear of it. You were exasperated enough to wonder whether the entire species of women had become extinct. Even now I become angry to think of what I may have missed.”
“How about telling you a story to make up for it?”
When we had seated ourselves under a huge tree, Sushama began, “The name of my story is ‘Remani.’The first half is well known. As for the rest, if I instead of you, Santi, were to say so, nobody would believe it to have been written by Sushama Rani.”
After a long silence, Sushi started on her story, “It was my final year in school.”
“What do you mean by I in the story?”
“A hindrance in the very beginning is inauspicious. Can’t you guess that I am narrating it in the first person so as to give the story more force? Now, please do not interrupt me hereafter.”
“No, I won’t. Please continue.”
Sushama once more embarked on her story, “My father and my brothers were staying in Thiruvananthapuram at that time. My father was a judge in the High Court there. My brothers were attending college. My father would come home once in a month but my brothers were allowed to visit during the holidays only. Even my eldest brother, who used to come and see me without my father’s knowledge-so fond of me was he-had no time that year to come frequently as he was studying for a law degree.”
“Oh God! how many people can there be who grew up surrounded by love as I did? No one ever dared to oppose my slightest wish. Was there anything in the world that I could not gain with my tears? Only later did I realize that the endless pampering of so many people, rare beauty and extreme wealth were but God given curses. At that time all those just served to make me conceited. I saw myself as an empress of the world. My untutored vanity never made me see anyone as equal. I had never faced poverty, never felt a lack of love, and did not know what misery was. My powers of observation were damaged by the lustre of a blessed universe that fulfilled the least of my whims. I had no inkling at all of the darker side of the world-the side I could not see.”
“Yes, it was in the spring of that year that one Mr.Krishnan Nair, who was to appear for the degree examination in March, came to stay near us with his friends. Because the house they wanted was ours,a representative of the group came to see my father. His name-should I give the real name or will a false one suffice, Santi?”
“It is your wish, Sushi.”
“Oh, what is the point in lying? Everyone called him Babu”. When she uttered that name, the colour in her cheeks waned. My father who was modern in attitude, introduced me, who was only fifteen years then, to that man.”
Once more Sushama became too emotional to talk. After a while, conjuring up a sweet smile with difficulty, she asked, “Should I describe his form that I saw then as the epitome of masculinity, Santi?”
“If you like, Sushi,” said I, “Were you to go into details, I should be eager to listen.”
“Leave it,” Sushama declined somberly. “Anyway it was not that tall, lean, neat golden hued body that enticed and captivated me; nor was it the face that was an excellent model of manly demeanor. Rather, it was his manner-I have seen such appealing straightforward behaviour only in the two of youthen in Babu and now in you, Santi. Oh! how I loved his pleasant disposition, his energetic manner, his dignified ways! I was happy he treated me as an equal. His casual appreciation of my looks pleased me. I have always preferred love to deference. That is why I fell in love with Babu. And why I love you now. Not only that, adoleoscence is the time when you crave to get as well as give a love that is entirely different from the natural fondness of parents and relatives. But I never wanted it from a man. Why didn’t God send you to me then, Santi, instead of Babu? Fate is a force that works against man. It proposes—
Her voice broke, eyes filled with tears.
I said, “Isn’t it stupid to weep for bygones, Sushi?”
In Sushama’s eyes tears and on her lips a smile, shone simultaneously. She went on,
“After that first encounter, we met again in about four weeks. While taking a walk in the evening I fell headlong over the root of a tree and Babu helped me up.”
As she gazed at the lawn fixedly, seeming to read her past there, Sushama’s whole body quivered. She came closer to me and gripping my hands strongly, said, “Really, Santi, that fall of mine was to be the forerunner of the coming downfall. As soon as I fell down, somebody humming a Hindi song caught hold of me and pulled me up. I looked up in surprise to see who the great singer was and, lo and behold if it was none other than,” Sushama let out a deep sigh as she completed the sentence, “Yes, Mr.Babu himself, the one who was to raise the curtain of my love tragedy.”
“The premonition that often warns someone of an impending tragedy made me instinctively wary of extending my acquaintance with Babu. Accordingly I gave up my evening walk. But whenever I went up to the balcony, I would be sure to see Babu. Thus one month went by and my father came home. Both my parents admonished me to resume the routine I was used to. My protests were not taken heed of. Fate had the winning hand. We met that very day. And as soon as Babu caught sight of me he asked, “Didn’t you give up all your usual habits because you were frightened of me?”
“Why should I be scared of all and sundry?” I retorted.
Even though this exchange began in discord, by Babu’s tactful ways we parted good friends.
Meetings and conversation became a regular affair since then. It didn’t take much time for the initial interest to develop into a full-fledged romance. Alas! What a fool I was! He started to address me more and more freely-the formal Miss Rani giving way to Sushama Rani, then Sushama and finally just Sushi. And I came to be on first name terms with him-instead of Mr.Babu, I began calling him just Babu.
The day before my eldest brother was to return home for the Christmas holidays, Babu went off to his native place. I did not feel Babu’s absence deeply since I had my brother’s company. To my brother, who loved me more than life itself, I just hinted playfully that the boy next door had become a friend of mine.
Vacation over, my brother went back. The next day, Babu returned, looking emaciated, the eyes sunken and body careworn. When I enquired whether either of his parents had been ill, he replied that he had neither father nor mother. After a while, with tears in his despondent eyes he said, “I had only one sister, but she passed away last year. When I had to stay all alone in the house we had been together I felt a terrible pain.”
Within one week Babu regained his pleasant disposition. One day as we were about to part after a delightful tete-a-tete, Babu, reluctant to leave, said eagerly as if just finding a way to prolong the meeting, but not letting go his usual casual manner,
“Tonight there is ample moonlight. You can easily find your way from your room, down the steps from the balcony to the garden at the back. Come if you can. I shall be waiting beneath the huge mango tree at midnight.”
That night my conscience rebuked me. But I consoled myself with the thought that Babu’s deference to his younger sister’s memory would not allow him to lead a girl the wrong way, even by insinuation. I never knew that a man in the throes of passion would not think of the hazards his partner might encounter.
Days went by with regular meetings in the evenings and secret rendezvous at night. Examinations were fast approaching. A week before the exams, as we were about to part one night, I said, “I shall not be able to come here like this till the exams are over. And may be not after that either.”
“Yes,” Babu said, “But will you promise not to refuse what I am going to ask of you?”
With no inkling of what I would hear the next moment I said, “Would I be able to refuse your wish? Good! Here, I give my word before all these witnesses that I shall not reject your plea. Are you satisfied now?”
“All right, then.” Babu stood up. I also did the same. He clasped me to his tall upright torso and moving into the moonlight, said, “Tomorrow I leave this place. I shall never come back. Our liaison ends as of now. My request is
not to try and find me ever again.”
The immensity of the shocking news had me reeling with extreme pain and fatigue. All the sparkle and joy I had been feeling dissolved abruptly. I woke up from my sweet dreams. At that moment, the frightful magnitude of the danger that I had so lightly ignored dawned on me. I began shivering; my legs became unsteady. I fell forward.
“Sushi’s fall the other day saw the commencement of our affair and today’s the curtain call.” Babu said as he caught me and supported me to his chest. After a while when I had gathered my composure, I felt ashamed of my weakness and moving away from his hold, said, “I shall not break my promise. But if somebody else tries to find you I am not responsible.”
Babu’s face was disfigured by an evil grin. He asked, “Why should anybody search for me? Is a marriage between different castes accepted by aristocratic families?”
That statement trapped me. Not revealing my defeat, I said, “You do not know how a single drop of tear from my eyes shall prompt so many to seek revenge! Money and power can accomplish anything. I have powerful relatives all over Kerala who are capable of doing you untold harm.”
Even though Babu’s face paled, he said calmly enough, “That doesn’t matter. I have taken revenge for the sin done to my sister Leena. Whatever happens to me now is immaterial.”
Babu stood there quietly .I had never before observed in him any traits of a different community. But I assumed he was a Christian from his sister’s name Leena. I quaked inside as I thought of my future. Suddenly he raised his head and began talking, the tears flowing freely.
“Alas, Rani, when my Leena was just twelve, our parents passed away, leaving us helpless. A miserly relative took up our care on the proviso that I wed his ugly daughter. I agreed to all his conditions just so that Leena could grow up with no privations. I left Leena with him and went to Thiruvananthapuram to pursue my studies. I found the separation difficult to
bear. But where was the wherewithal to travel to and fro to see her every other day? So I gave up all personal desires and forfeiting my very life, I safeguarded her for more than three years. Whatever for? Only to offer her tender heart and precious beauty in sacrifice to a Hindu murderer.”
Babu laughed loudly as if he had gone mad and continued, “I have taken revenge for that today. My sister never asked his name or place; she loved him so much that she didn’t even bother. And he took advantage, bewitched that immature heart and won her trust and then destroyed it all.”
Babu’s eyes that were blazing with rage filled with tears. He continued in a calm voice. “Finally the sorrow I perceived in her letters made me go home. Ignoring the scolding and admonitions of the master of the house, I went into her room and demanded to know what the reason for her sorrow was. She began crying and through the non-stop flow of tears confessed that she had carried on a secret affair with a stranger and that he had disappeared-an incomplete story with no head or tail. But the consequences?”
Babu raised his voice again. “My sister informed me that I was to be an uncle in due course-the outcome of that cad’s betrayal. He had got away when he came to know of it. My dependant position in the household did not even give me time to think up a solution that would save her from the imminent shame. I could have discarded everything and gone away without anybody knowing, but wouldn’t that have been gross ingratitude? So, finally, seeing no way out, I left for Thiruvananthapuram with a searing heart, having promised Leena to return at the earliest with a solution for the problem and reminding her to keep the secret safe. I attended all the examinations without fail, as I was afraid of the one who was financing me. But neither did I read the question papers nor write a single word in answer. I got back home by midnight the day the exams were over. Can I ever forget Leena’s face as she sat by the lamp, weary and languid? Oh, God how lovely she was! I was consoled by the joy she showed on seeing me. With a pathetic smile she assured me that she herself had found a solution which she would tell me on the morrow.”
Sushama fell silent for a while. Then said, “What a pity! Womanhood is a curse of God to be sure. A heart full of compassion; a form that dangerously deceives. I was in the piteous state of having to ask what the solution Leena had discovered was.”
Sushi started sobbing. Her tears gathered in my heart as hatred for men folk. Finally she stopped crying to continue, “When I asked what that solution was, Babu snarled like the very devil.”
He said, “Her cold lifeless body that we found the next morning told me what her solution was. I took an oath as I stood before her dead body-to put out the fire burning inside me by settling the score at any cost. That is how I managed to get acquainted with Krishnan Nair and come here. Because I am able to talk charmingly and behave impeccably-all by God’s grace-my intentions have succeeded very well. I had no way of discovering my Hindu adversary; so I had to bespoil a Hindu girl who had the beauty and integrity of my Leena. Our scriptures advise us to show the other cheek when slapped on one. But man is not perfect. What is written cannot always be followed in practical life. That is the logical justification for such acts. Personally I have only affection for you Rani. But what can I do? One man’s desire destroyed my sister; my thirst for revenge besmirched you. However, I have one sorrow left. That you have not fallen into inescapable shame like Leena.”
I did not say anything.
“I am taking leave of Sushama Rani, the epitome of beauty and going to the side of my ugly bride. This is the life God has intended for me.”
So saying Babu turned away, jumped over the wall and disappeared. I continued to stand there, shivering in apprehension. After a lapse of time I somehow managed to climb the stairs to the balcony. When I saw the maidservant standing there I realized that I was about to get a bad reputation. She asked me whether the loud laugh that awakened her had been Babu’s as she had seen a man jumping over the wall. I made no response and walked forward. But when she enquired, “Does your mother know of your nocturnal doings, Kochu Rani?” I became angry. She did not stop there-“ You meet each other like this every night, don’t you?” Her daring astounded me so that I turned to her and asked, “If so, you would have seen us before, wouldn’t you? Tell me, have you?”
She ignored my outburst and said, “What if I have not actually seen? Aren’t I also a woman?” So saying she went into her room and shut the door.
“It must have been her and maybe Babu who saw to it that the story followed me wherever I went. You must surely have heard all that, Santi?”
“Yes”, but her imagination hasn’t even approached the real thing.”
“Anyway she was dismissed the very next day.” Sushama smiled. “The day the exams were over, my mental prowess also failed. I was laid up. I asked my mother who had heard something of what the maid babbled, to send for my eldest brother.”
Suddenly Sushi turned to me and asked, “Should I describe in detail our encounter Santi?”
“No need,” I said. “Your brother held up the knife; your mother intervened- so goes the story, right?”
“Alas! Do you think they who couldn’t bear to see me shed a tear, would think of shedding my blood? But my dearest Santi,’’Sushi said in a voice throbbing with pain, “I did sincerely pray that day that no girl should ever fall into the dire state of having to reveal such a deadly secret with a heart rending shame, begging for mercy. As if the divulging of my secret had strangled the very air around, only suppressed sobs and long sighs disturbed the silence.
Finally my brother said, “What has happened has happened. We shall think of something to be done. Get up, Sushi. Does that man know of this?”
When I said no, my brother was relieved. Saying that he would put things right in two days, he went out of the room with my mother following.
“Good!” I exclaimed, “If only all brothers were so liberal and broadminded!”
As if she hadn’t heard my words, Sushi continued, “My brother’s sharp wits found a way to fool the world. He announced his decision to go on a tour to augment his learning and in a week’s time my father came home to see him off. I surmised how the meeting between father and son had gone by the tears in my father’s eyes as he came out of the room. On the day before my brother was to embark on his travels, when there were a lot of visitors present, I begged my father to let me go with him.
“If so, let Sushi’s mother also go with you. Let her delivery this time be elsewhere. A baby born abroad shall be a blessing. All by God’s greatness! Otherwise, who would have thought there would be another child here after Sushi?” My father went on in this vein.
As we travelled on, revealing our names and whereabouts only when strictly necessary, the live blossom of my wilted love trellis made its appearance. When we had telegraphed home that a sister to me had been born, bearing distinct resemblance to our father, our fears were at last laid to rest.
When Santi, my brother named her thus because with her birth our constant anxiety had been appeased, became six months old, we stopped our travels and went to my aunt in Coimbatore. From there I went on to Ernakulam, my elder brother to England and my mother returned home with Santi.”
Sushi lay back on the grass with her head on her folded hands to rest a while. I, who had been able to visualize each scene vividly enough by her power of narration, asked after a pause, “Did you see Mr. Babu after that, Sushi?”
“Oh, yes!” Sushi said with enthusiasm, “He came to Ernakulam to request my uncle for a job.”
“Did you not talk at all?”
“I went over and talked to him.”
“Hey, didn’t your uncle object?” I asked astounded, “The rumour about you“
Santi, how many times did I tell you that nobody ever objected to my wish?” Sushi’s face fell into the depressed lines it habitually wore when she was alone. “To tell the truth, I found Babu’s state unbearable. How the hardships of a poor, highly educated family man had spoiled that enviably handsome figure! When I commented on it, he smiled pathetically and said, “I have no more hopes in this life”.
Just to test whether he had any suspicions regarding Santi’s parentage, I said, “I have a little sister now” to which he replied, “So hereafter the attention you get might be halved, Miss Rani.”
“Santi,” Sushama sat up and said, “I decided then and there that as soon as I became a wife I would help Babu in someway or another. After all isn’t he my Santi’s-?’
My next question was whether she intended to reveal this secret to Santi, ever.
“All that is left to my elder brother. Even my younger brother does not know the whole story. If he came to know, he wouldn’t condone it either. Today I have revealed this to you. And only one more person need know it all.”
“And who might that be?” I was eager to know.
“The man who comes to be my husband. I shall tell him everything with my elder brother’s consent.”
“What if he makes it public?”
“Blah! Is there such an animal in this world? If he intends to publicize it, my brother shall say that only the part of my being in love with Babu was true and that the rest had been made up to test the depth of feeling the intended groom actually had for me. Nobody would ever disbelieve my elder brother. How can the world doubt that my pregnant mother who had gone on a prolonged tour had not delivered this child who resembled my father so closely? Nobody would even suspect the child to be mine. Why should they after all?”
“If so, why should the man believe any part of Sushi’s story?”
“Who cares whether he believes it or not? I just want the relief of unburdening myself of this terrible secret.”
“Is that not wrong, Sushi?”
“Look, Santi,” Sushi went on to instruct me a little of the Kaliyuga Geeta. “If you follow truth and justice to the letter everything shall be in a mess. You just do certain things for the approval of society. You can read Thomas Hardy’s Tess and enjoy it, but it is not fit to be imitated. Remember that we have been given birth in this joyous world of bubbling brooks, beautiful wilderness, colleges and cinema halls, to enjoy life.”
I asked diffidently, only because I couldn’t contain my curiosity, “Don’t you still love Mr.Babu, Sushama?”
“Oh, can a woman’s heart ever turn into a stone? That spring of tenderness has not dried up completely, it never will. As for my love at that time-
Sushi took up the book ‘Remanan’ in her hands and sang from it,
“That was just a passing fancy!
An endearing wonder soft as a flower
An inducement intensified by music
That sweetens the mind in harmonious blending.” That was all it was.”
“Then Sushi is not Remani.”
“Not at all. Only poverty breeds that sort of devotion where one lovingly sacrifices the self before betrayal of trust. Riches and indulgence never propagate self-denial, only destroys it. So, tell me, Santi, who is actually Remani?”
“Poor thing! One of the many innocents who are ruined by falling prey to the sensual appetites of men, just because they are born soft of heart. I feel as if I can see the face of that girl waiting to catch a last glimpse of her brother before bidding farewell to this world. Well, what good does telling all these stories bring about? No matter how many of them you listen to, the same thing goes on till the end of the world.”
“That is very true”, I concurred on a sorrowful note. “After all, aren’t these girls born of our own flesh and blood?”
Translated from Malayalam by Sulochana Ram Mohan.
K.Saraswathy Amma (1919-1975) who entered the scene of Malayalam short story writing in the late thirties, was a tireless champion of women’s liberation. She practiced to the letter what she preached and insisted that there should be no apparent discrepancy between her character and her writing. Her individual vision of life is reflected in all her writings; creative works, articles or speeches prepared for the radio or even personal letters. She maintains in an interview with the writer T.N. Jayachandran in his book, Kathayude Pinnile Katha that it is the character of a writer that defines her/his writing. Just as we universally agree that the knowledge one acquires with the senses is filtered through the medium of his character before reaching and settling in the mind, we should deem that the reverse process happens when one writes or communicates what is stored in the mind. She goes further to remark that the similarity often seen in an author’s various works might be due to this automatic intervention of the person’s specific aptitudes.
The very fact that Saraswathy Amma was thus able to put into words the association of her ideas and literary aspirations is itself a miracle when we think of the period of her intellectual pursuits. In the pre-independence years, a predominantly male-oriented social structure prevailed, in which women were marginalized in more ways than one. The family setup with its myriad restrictions and taboos did not provide the woman a conducive atmosphere for progressive thinking and self-expression.
Lalithambika Antharjanam was the first woman short story writer in Malayalam to raise her voice in protest against this subordination of women inside the home. K.Saraswathy Amma who followed Antharjanam into the scene, was a much stronger advocate of women’s emancipation. Her stories were couched in the definite tone of the thinking woman. The focus of her writing was the emerging sense of self in the woman who had so far been sidelined from the mainstream of life with no individual voice or stand. The basic idea of her stories is the desire that woman should be considered equal to men and be given equal opportunities in all walks of life.
Though this original thinker and writer remained forgotten for half a century, the revial of women’s writing and the growing debates and discussions on pennezhuthu, women’s writings, have brought her name to the forefront. Rereading her works and analyzing the core of her ideology has become part of the agenda of women’s studies. This increase interest in Saraswathy Amma has led to the publication of her collected works, running to morethan a thousand pages.
Saraswathy Amma’s first story was ‘Seetha Bhavanam’which was published in the MathrubhumiWeekly in 1938. From 1942 onwards she wrote continuously and her stories were readily accepted by different publications. She was quickly projected as one of the prominent writers of the time. Her chief works are the short story collections-‘ Keezhjeevanakkari’, ‘Sthreejanmam’, ‘Ponnumkudam’, ‘Kalamandiram’, ‘Vivaha Sammanam’, ‘Penn Buddhi’, ‘Kanatha Mathil’, ‘Chuvanna Pookkal’, ‘Premapareekshanam’, ‘Ellam Thikanja Bharya’, ‘Cholamarangal’ and ‘Idivettuthailam’. The drama, Devadoothi, the novelette, Premabhajanam, and a collection of essays, Purushanmarillatha Lokam also have been authored by Saraswathy Amma. However she was not able to maintain this pace of writing till the end. Though she actively wrote all through the forties, by the latter half of the fifties she fell silent. The story ‘Umma’ published in 1958 was her last literary effort. She passed away on December 26, 1975 after a month of illness. Her death went unmentioned among literary and social circles.
Saraswathy Amma began writing at a time when women were just emerging from the cocoon of the complicated family structure. As a result of social renaissance and democratic discipline women were at last able to aspire for higher education, fruitful career and economic independence. But the problems awaiting them in this new domain were numerous and they were not well equipped with worldly experience to fight them. Gathering material from this plight of women, Saraswathy Amma set out to build a defense for the new woman through the medium of her writing. Of the more than eighty short stories she that wrote, only five or six do not have woman’s life as the central theme. All the rest are the proclamations of the identity of the woman–be they radical feminists or submissive doormats.
Saraswathy Amma’s short stories have often been tabbed as stories of male antagonism, but the fact is that she never deliberately set out to malign man. She portrayed faithfully the world around her–all the injustices and iniquities practiced on women and their inability to respond and retaliate. This fired her to unleash a gale of words. Whether the image of men would be tarnished by this was not her concern. She single-mindedly pursued her vision of women realizing their full potential. In the essay entitled Njan Oru Bharthavayirunnenkil, If I were a husband, the ideas she put forth on how a husband should/could be throws light on her concept of the perfect man. One cannot condemn her stand as being blindly prejudiced; she did understand a man’s point of view. And though she remained a spinster who could not stand the hypocrisy inside a marriage, she was aware of the mores of family life and how a disintegration of its structure would affect individuals. So her concern was to re-structure the family with the woman asserting herself rather than being the ideal wife and mother.
Saraswathy Amma has dealt with a myriad of women’s issues in her works–love, marriage, the intricacies and intrigues of man-woman relationships, the false sexual concepts of the times, women’s right to physical pleasures and the lot of the working women. She has depicted them from various perspectives. But she has not gone into other aspects of her contemporary life to any great extent. Historical or communal issues do not appear in her works. In contrast to Lalithambika Antharjanam who went on to write Agnisakshi, a great novel, in her sixties, Saraswathy Amma’s talents were not honed by time. Antharjanam’s novel had historical and social significance. Being the story of the evolution of a woman from the family to the forefront of social activism, it became a record of the times. But Saraswathy Amma has no such portrayals to her credit, since she stopped writing before her literary evolution was complete.
As for the literary style Saraswathy Amma adopted, it was way too different from the prevalent one. She belonged to the period that believed the short story to be a genre that differed from the novel by its precision and perceptiveness. But as Saraswathy Amma delved deeper into her writing, a style took shape of its own. She had the habit of introducing all the doubts and dilemmas she herself had into the story as debates and discussions. So the stories automatically became dialogue oriented rather than descriptive or eventful. But it is this form of discourse that enabled her to extend her feminist attitudes into the wider canvas of social considerations. Therefore her stories do not stagnate in to the single dimension of argument for argument’s sake, but develop into a thought provoking, revolutionary plane that could bring about changes in the very nature of the life lived.
‘Remani’ is one of the finest examples of Saraswathy Amma’s creative philosophy. It is a subversive reading of an extremely popular romantic poem written by Changampuzha Krishna Pillai. Changampuzha wrote ‘Remanan’ on the suicide of his dearest poet friend, Idapalli Raghavan Pillai. The story of ‘Remanan’ is said to be based on Idapalli’s life.The story goes like this-Remanan is a poor innocent shepherd boy who plays the flute with a magical touch. He falls in love with a rich girl of aristocratic birth, Chandrika. Encouraged by his constant companion and conscience keeper Madanan–they claim to be a single soul separated by the two bodies. He goes on dallying with Chandrika in spite of his misgivings. As is to be expected, Chandrika betrays him when confronted with her parents’ wrath and the loss of worldly pleasures. She is forced to accept the bridegroom chosen by the family. Remanan, heart broken at her callous perfidy, looses all hopes of life and kills himself. Changampuzha sang this sentimental saga as a pastoral elegy. Lyrical in expression with beautiful descriptions of nature, an entire generation rose to celebrate this poem. No young man or girl was there at that time who did not know by heart at least a couple of lines from ‘Remanan’–so popular did it become. The existing conventions of good poetry were revolutionized by this individual voice and a host of imitators cropped up in its wake.
K.Saraswathy Amma, in her story ‘Remani’ seeks, in her own words, ‘to mitigate the wrongs of Chandrika within the depiction that is deliberately construed so as to induce the readers to think that the fault is entirely that of the woman. She tries to redefine the character of the heroine in terms of social norms and practical insight. All the quotations that the two friends, Sushi and Santi effortlessly articulate are from the poem ‘Remanan’.
SULOCHANA RAMMOHAN. Promising short story writer, poet and translator. Has published critical studies of the stories of Chandramathi and Ashitha.