She examined, in revulsion, the swollen face of the man sprawling across her breasts. The muscles of the face glistened. The huge ears sticking out on either side glistened too. Suppressing the nausea surging in her as usual, she took one of his palms and began to stroke it. His stumps were mere vestiges of fingers. With a disgust bordering on an unknown fear, she let the palm drop on the bed.
Holding her breath, she gazed at the ceiling. A peacock watched her with his spread plumes. Did it stifle a laugh, she wondered. The familiar odor of rotting flesh assailed her nostrils. She tried to look elsewhere. It was as if the odor emanated from her bosom. His face continued to swell. It would be impossible to recognize the visage elsewhere than over her own breasts. She had an impulse to push him aside and scream aloud. All the same she wished to let him rest. (Well, isn’t it unpardonable to shake off a man who innocently sleeps over you?) That would be an indelible stigma on womanhood and on her family. And with no other means of livelihood it would be a sure way to starvation. At this time the peacock on the ceiling pirouetted on one foot. Its dusty plumes rubbed over his torso and face and acquired a fresh coating of puss and germs from the leper. She recalled the gypsy, foretelling her future at the carnival. ‘A great man’s head will rest on your ample bosom.’ She sprang up with a scream. The man woke up when he felt the absence of her soft breasts under him.
Expecting red threads of anger to appear in his puffy eyes, Sheelavati shrank into a corner. The thick odor of sickness that filled the room made her throw up secretly into the corner of her sari, which anyway she held close to her mouth in a gesture of supplication.
Sheelavati muttered, ‘God pardon me. You know how devoted I am. I don’t know how this body still revolts and vomits.’
‘Sheelavati,’ he growled in his deep bass voice, ‘This act of yours is very inappropriate. Isn’t it a disgrace? A wife is not supposed to . . . ’
‘Yes my lord. You are right. Pardon me. I should be gratified for such a privileged title—wife, though a woman of my kind little deserves such grace.’
The man regarded her for a moment with pity and became thoughtful. ‘My darling,’ he said, ‘the title “wife” does not matter. Let’s not get carried away by silly nomenclatures. The sweetness of your poetry, the languor of your anklets and the honey of humility in your voice is enough to give me wings. You are my treasure.’
Does the bile gathering in the mouth taste sweet? Sheelavati pondered. She lowered her eyelids and gently swallowed the spittle. She knelt on the floor and began to fondle his legs as if it were a veena. She wondered if music would emanate from her fingers. Then she wiped the slime and pus off his feet with the tresses of her gorgeous hair.
Like a king taking stock of his territory and treasure, the man ran his fingers, like a scepter, imperially over her full breasts and gazed contentedly at her navel which swung like a pendant in her waist band.
‘Okay,’ he commanded ‘now pick up the basket.’ Her hand abruptly stopped stroking his legs when she felt the rasp of dry dermal tissues. At school, in standard eight to be precise, Sheelavati had learnt about leprosy and how it spread. Instantly she decided to wash her hair, body and soul with Dettol, an antiseptic.
Then she brought the basket. Sheelavati followed the path, well trodden by many before her. She had stuffed the basket with fresh soft leaves to make it comfortable, in accordance to the convention and as the elders had ordered. She walked through the garden paths bordered with
laudanum and bellflowers, through the dense forest filled with fresh green fragrance and along the sea. She maintained an even pace so that the man sitting in the basket on her head felt no discomfort, lest the mummy-like figure in the basket get irritated by her sudden shifts of pace. It was also important not to let him know how fatigued she was.
‘Do you feel pain dear?’ he asked, ‘Your tender soles deserve footwear made of flowers.’ Rivulets of sweat were running down her cheeks and to the lips. She tasted the salt and smiled.
‘How lucky I am,’ she said, and kept decelerating her pace on the slope.
‘Oh! fair one,’ said her man, ‘the tinkling of your anklets makes the world go crazy with joy. Did you notice that deer? Full of admiration, he is staring at you. I hate his demeanor, I hope you don’t pay any attention to him, darling.’
‘Oh! No,’ she quickly took off her eyes from the fine spotted deer that had tempted Sita and said, ‘I didn’t even glance towards him.’ She laughed melodiously, ‘How possessive you are! Ha! I am happy that my dance, my song and my love are appreciated by you. Lord, I am so fulfilled.’
Suddenly the man started to wail. Sheelavati was startled, sensing the desperation of the man on her head striving to get out of the basket. A noble woman was approaching them with two maids. Her thick tresses fell to the ground, her forehead was adorned with a sandalwood mark. Stunned at the sight of Sheelavati and her son, she stood dumbfounded under a tall tree.
‘Mother,’ he babbled with fear and embarrassment as he scrambled out of the basket, ‘It’s my mother.’
So? Sheelavati was quite annoyed by his haste to scramble out.
It had sprained her neck.
‘So? Go, prostrate before her and come back.’
He stared at Sheelavati’s face like an imbecile. Then in a sweet and humble tone quite unfamiliar to her, he said to her, ‘Please Sheelavati, go and hide behind those bushes. Your feet surely need some rest. Consoling my mother, well, leave that to me.’
‘Coward,’ screamed Sheelavati. Not withstanding the swan feathers spread in her basket, her sore foot and the sprain in her neck, she screamed again, ‘you coward.’
Framed against the raised eyebrows of the man, in a deliberate gesture she wiped away the sweat on her forehead. Then she began to laugh hysterically. The man feared the hysteria would rock the earth under his feet, himself and his mother.
‘This is not fair, a finely brought up woman like you is not expected to throw such tantrums like a kid.’ As he admonished her, the man’s voice became tinged with the timbre of reasonableness. After a moment’s hesitation, as if trying to articulate some highly complex idea he added, ‘Stop being hysterical and please try to understand.’
Then he went and prostrated himself in front of his mother. Sheelavati hid behind the foliage and tried to remove a thorn from her foot. She rubbed her soles in the dust and spat harshly on the ground. Wiping off the remaining saliva from the lips, she peered through the bush. She cast forth all the niceties and etiquette that her mother had taught her in childhood. She eavesdropped in an unladylike manner.
‘Son,’ his mother wailed, ‘is that woman your bride?’
‘No,’ the man replied in an emphatic melancholic tone, ‘How could you ask such an insane question? Wasn’t it you who brought me up all along?’
‘Son,’ the mother advised, ‘to die childless is a sin. Like all the other species you must find a mate and procreate children through her. This is expected of you. Don’t bring shame to the clan by remaining childless. Your mother can’t stand such ignominy. You must bring a bride of noble birth to nurture you and your children.’
Trying not to look towards the foliage at all the son kept his head bowed all through the discourse. The mother’s request delighted Sheelavati. For a better view of the mother she parted the foliage a little more.
‘Son,’ the mother continued, ‘to consider if this girl would protest is beside the point. She may be prone to periodic irritations because she
is so young. When she realizes that you have to attain your salvation through your progeny, she will understand the futility of all the wailing. Her security and attainment of greater maturity is hinged on this realization. Later she would glow like molten gold, another Sita emerging out of the ordeal of fire.
When your father brought his second wife to my bedroom, you were just three years old. Like any other woman of noble values I gave them my bed. Overjoyed, your father sent me this pearl-studded necklace, which was in fact intended for the sweet second wife. Look at this, I have never taken it off my neck till today.’ The mother offered the pendant to her son.
‘Salvage whatever you could,’ her mother too had said. Sheelavati was familiar with the good old rule. She remembered the first gift this man had brought her. She had been a virgin then. Her mother helped her to wear the gold chain.
‘Daughter,’ she had told her, ‘just don’t be a fool. Next time ask him for a chain that would reach below your breasts.’
The man had indeed brought her many ornaments that fell below her navel, but it had hardly mattered. His image loomed large over her in those days. Her morning sickness was her delight. Lost in the sweet musings, her days and nights were lulled into a sleep.
One morning when she got up, a jewel-studded sword lay beside her. Touching her forehead caressingly, her mother said, ‘He has sent it. He has ordered to gift this to your yet-to-be-born son and to keep his name a closely-guarded secret.’
Sheelavati raised the sword and struck her mother. Then she walked over the corpse to the King’s court, carrying the bloodstained sword in her hand, unmindful of the disheveled hair and untidy clothes.
The moment she stormed into the King’s court, the soldiers shut the palace gates. They could hardly imagine a pretty woman coming there in such a state without an adequate reason. It was imperative that they let the secret be confined within the palace walls.
‘O King,’ Sheelavati questioned, ‘where is my husband?’
‘Who?’ The king who was instantly smitten by her beauty and voice said, ‘Who do you mean, O, fair one?’
‘My husband,’ she exclaimed. ‘My child’s father!’ The court, full of dignitaries jolted in shock.
A Brahmin, scandalized by the impertinence of the girl jumped to his feet. ‘Where is your mangalasutra? Why is there is no kumkum on your forehead?’
Suddenly she saw her man sitting among the courtiers. She flung the sword towards him and said, ‘Oh! My Lord, why should my son or I need this sword? Swords are for people like you. What we need is your name . . . your presence.’
‘Do you know her?’ the king asked the man.
‘Your majesty,’ replied the man slowly, ‘I could not recall her for a while. Pardon me your Highness This sword, the sword helped me
to recognize her ’
‘So?’ the king asked.
‘This woman is well trained in all fine arts. She is very intelligent and as your Highness can clearly see, is extremely beautiful.’ He paused and continued, ‘She can enliven the world with her brilliant smiles. She used to fill my nights with moonshine. But my lord, you know very well that we cannot marry women like her. Such women can’t be mothers to our sons. She is the daughter of a courtesan.’
‘Dear, try to understand.’ He turned towards Sheelavati and added, ‘you cannot be my wife. A Brahmin like me is tied to the ethics and politics of this court. In repayment of the pleasures you gave me you will beget a son resplendent like the sun. No, don’t weep. Don’t let your lotus-petal-like eyes be moist with the dew of tears. Do not look at me like this. Intelligent women should be able to assess the reality of contexts. The best jewel of a good woman is the capacity to discriminate.’
The other Brahmin strained at his sacred leash and growled, ‘To begin with, what is the guarantee that it is your child? The temptresses are everywhere in our streets to trap the poor, innocent men folk like us.’
Notwithstanding the modesty of character her name suggested, Sheelavati bawled out in fury.
‘If the child is not his, let him prove it.’
As if struck by lightning, everyone, even the king fell unconscious. Imagine! A chit of a girl unleashing unheard of ideas at them in such an unabashed manner, ideas that had no sanction from tradition! Finally the king recovered from his swoon and ordered his men to chain her up like a wild animal.
‘Don’t,’ ordered the king, lowering his eyes, ‘Don’t stare at me. Your presence is enough to disgrace this court. How dare you interrogate this learned man who has adorned your bed so often, in the presence of these experts of ethics and morality? An impertinent woman is a disgrace to the nation and to womanhood. For this unpardonable offence, I decree that you die in the lion’s den.’
Sheelavati felt aghast at her destiny. To die at the age of eighteen even for her son’s father’s sake seemed quite needless and absurd to her.
‘O King,’ she pleaded, ‘please forgive me for my offence, my pettiness and other flaws. Indeed, my mother did instruct me in my childhood not to raise any questions in an assembly of learned men. My lord, you are compassionate. I am a sinner, I agree. Please pardon my son. After all he is the son of a noble man. I will not ever forgive myself for blighting his father’s reputation. My lord, so bless me that I may beget a son as strong as Parasurama, the son of Jamadagni who beheaded his mother Renuka to obey his father.’
‘Fair one,’ the king said, ‘it was your failure to grasp the import of contexts which led you to this offence. Lovely woman, I realize you will have to stop singing and dancing for a while as you are pregnant.’
‘O God. What a merciful King we have! He shows such concern for the problems of a wretched woman like me. Sir, surely my man who is such an ornament to this court will not desert me. To wear the dust of his feet on my forehead is my salvation.’
At this, tears rushed into the King’s eyes.
‘Take care of your man, Sheelavati. Be everything to him, like a mother to a child and a whore to a man. Never let his feet touch the ground. Take care of his diseased body. And mind. Carry him in the basket of your modesty and good character. Be his best adornment.’
In this way she was christened Sheelavati, that is, a woman of character. Till then her name had been Sarala, Deepa and so on.
Beyond the bush his mother sobbed, contemplating the consequences of his failure to sustain the family lineage.
‘Mother,’ the man said, ‘the earth cannot take the weight of your tears. It won’t forgive me if I let it fall. And so I shall fulfill your wishes.’
The mother wiped away her tears quickly and checked to see if any of her tears had really touched the ground. Then she took her son in her arms.
‘That girl who carried you around will weep profusely,’ consoled the mother, ‘like a fresh bamboo stalk suddenly slit. Her dance in despair will be as beautiful as the rain-beaten tendrils of a creeper in the monsoon. Like a slithering snake she will walk gracefully into the waiting arms of many men. She will loathe her own poisonous breath and stoop like a wet squib. Under the bolt from the blue she will stand, loaded and charged ready to explode. You will not understand its full implications, my boy, you are sensitive and burdened with the responsibilities of a man.’
‘Then like Savithri, who rescued her husband from Yama, the God of Death,’ the mother continued, ‘your wife alone will redeem you with her purity. So choose a suitable girl from any of those young women I have lined up before you.’
Like goddesses appearing in front of saints in old mythologies the noble women began to present themselves on the street. He paraded in front of the maids, scrutinizing each one of them. His swollen face glistened in the daylight that reflected on his smooth, sick skin.
‘My son, select one of these girls who hail from noble households; who will wait for you everyday, keep your food warm and will be happy to eat the leftovers of your plate; who will cooperate with you in acting out all your perversions in the bed like any professional harlot and at daybreak will shrink like touch-me-nots in the public gaze, who will not laugh or speak aloud or scream and who will beget male children. She will provide you with a flat, an Ambassador car, and of course a good job. You may choose such a girl from these well-behaved girls. The horoscopes of all of them match perfectly with yours. Raman Nair of our
neighborhood has tallied them all. Good old Nair has even inscribed their vital statistics on the birth charts. So, son, get married and seek your salvation.’
‘Should I throw away the basket and join the line,’ thought Sheelavati but decided against it. Among the maids’ crimson feet washed with the juice of fresh hibiscus flower, her worn-out feet would surely be out of place like a bad musical note. Moreover, he would recognize them. Such adventures could make her the target of the King’s wrath once again.
In the meanwhile her man went ahead and chose a girl who was of tender age, modest and full breasted. He tied the mangalsutra as per tradition and her thighs were at once bound. It lent her a graceful gait. Gods showered flowers of approval from above.
‘Daughter, be an ornament to your husband,’ blessed the bride’s foster father, ‘—like Damayanti was to Nala though he had left her alone among beasts of the wild, and like Sita who bore no grudge against her husband in spite of being thrown out of the palace so that a silly rumor would not shake his throne—become an asset to your man. Receive his seeds like the earth. Suffer the tearing pains of labor to deliver his children. Look after his health and happiness to postpone your plunge into his funeral pyre. Do not ever emulate the immorality of an Amrita Pritam— that liberated woman writer who left her husband, or of Karuthamma who got drowned in the waves of sin in Thakazhi’s Chemmeen. Your husband’s welfare depends entirely on your chastity.’
Then the celebrations began. Sheelavati made herself scarce. Shehnai and nadaswaram and the band filled the air. After attempting to walk a few steps, the man halted. His rotten toes had shrunk against the rough sand.
‘Darling,’ he moaned to his bride, ‘I won’t be able to walk.’
It was then that his bride noticed his shriveled feet. She stooped to pick the sacred dust under his feet and put it on her forehead.
Suddenly a basket, thrown by the angels who inhabit the heavens, fell in front of her.
‘I am so lucky, my lord,’ she dropped her voice to the lowest audible level, ‘to be able to carry you on my head. Please climb into this basket so that I can exercise my exclusive privilege to comfort you.’
That night he snored in a rare state of tranquility, in the shadow of a divine fuck, not accompanied by the usual fear and guilt. The view of his wife’s freshly ravished and voluptuous body sent ripples of thrill through him in the morning as he watched her.
‘Darling,’ he moaned, his voice in a staccato with emotion. ‘Wear these anklets. Let me get drunk listening to the laughter of these anklets.’
Stupefied, she stared at her husband. ‘I am not proficient in song, dance and chess ’ Her voice was low and humble. ‘I read only
Mangalam and Manorama, the journals good girls like me are brought up on.’
Forgetting that it was still the dawn of the nuptial night he shouted, ‘What did you say? Do you want to render my lovely nights silent? Why didn’t you tell me about all these deficiencies beforehand? Do I have to remind you that upholding the inclinations of a husband is a wife’s dharma? You should have confessed your lack of such proficiency to the marriage broker.’
‘Please pardon me, Your Excellency,’ she replied, ‘All these skills are not appropriate for women of noble lineage.’
‘Who says so?’ roared her man, ‘I always sleep listening to the rhythm of anklets. You should put me to sleep by playing the harp.’
‘But you never asked me about these before our wedding.’ She protested mildly. ‘No one even mentioned any such thing. My lord, if a scholar and pandit like you should forsake an inexperienced girl like me who slept with you only a few hours back, others will throw me out like a used plantain leaf. So please come, I will carry you to the place where the magic sound of anklets and sweet music of harp fill the air.’
‘And thus I came to you again,’ said the man resting his head in Sheelavati’s lap and worried about his fate. His wife waited patiently in the next room with the basket. Running her fingers through his hair, Sheelavati sat in silence.
‘Fate,’ the man continued, ‘So many women were available and the one who was to beget my children, the one who was to share my bed and life, who was to be my refuge, my stimulation and my pride now renders my days lack-luster and nights dull.’
‘Oh, dear! Whenever I wake up in the night, whenever I watch the sky and the river, it is the memory of your anklets and your eyes that inspires me.’
Sheelavati slowly rose from the bed and like a westerly wind broke into a frenzied whirl. Through the hazy cloud of gyration her face was hardly visible. Withdrawing for a moment from the roaring cascade of sound that her anklets made, she asked, ‘What is her name?’ She faltered a moment.
‘What is her name, sir?’
‘My wife’s?’ he queried and replied, ‘Sheelavati.’
“Sheelavati” (Mounathinte Naanarthangal. Ed. N.K. Raveendran.
Thrissur: Haritham Books, 1993: 73-88), translated by Hema Nair R.
MANASI. She has more than three short story collections to her credit and is one of the most significant of women short story writers in Malayalam. Her works that dwell on the dark underside of the woman’s inner self articulates the non-rational with panache. Her feminism is evident in her writings. She received the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 1993 for her book Manjile Pakshi (The Bird in the Snow). Her other works are Idivalinte Thengal and Velichangalude Thaalam.
HEMA NAIR R. Teaches English at the N.S.S. College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Doris Lessing. A regular contributor to research journals. Interested in Women’s Studies.