Sheherban saw off her son. He was to get her some horse-urine. The Kawadiar palace had horses; it was quite nearby. But the urine of those horses was not within the reach of the poor! So she sent him off to Kanyakumari. Siraj would surely find some of that stuff there. He would have to search a bit for it, though.
Sheherban took a good look at herself. She’d just turned thirty-six. Life lay stretched out before her. She was still beautiful. Quite healthy too. Yet life nauseated her, filled her with loathing. This was to be her first and last try.
She wanted to think of nothing but the horse-urine after her son had started off. While blowing into the hearth, while straining the gruel off the cooked rice, while in the bath Before she changed, she applied
the medicated oil on her thighs and breasts. New wounds, everyday! They healed, appeared again, healed again Sheherban smiled at her
mirror. That killing smile of hers! That was hers and hers alone. She laughed silently, again and again, showing her even teeth, winking.
‘Let him be back soon. Let my son return.’ Sheherban draped the sari around herself deftly.
Now she had quite a lot of work to finish. She took out the ten- rupee note her husband had given her in the morning. There were so many things to buy— chilly, coriander, coconut oil, soap, pulses, onions she didn’t bother to think too much. As usual, at the shop, she promised
to pay later. On the way home, in the by lane, there was Mubina. She saw the coconut oil in Sheherban’s bottle.
‘Let me have some. It’s been days since I had a nice oil bath . . . ’
She kept walking, letting loose her thick hair, sticking out her hand. Sheherban opened the bottle and poured out a little. They walked together, and rubbing the oil into her hair, Mubina asked:
‘The Panaparambu people are looking for someone to clear up their yard. Why not ask them, Itta?’
That was the house where Mubina worked, and Sheherban liked the idea of working there.
‘Will they want me?’
‘Today, after finishing the housework I asked the grandma there.’ ‘What?’
‘Whether Sheherban would be allowed to do the hoeing.’ ‘And what did she say?’
‘Nothing! Why don’t you ask? They might let you. It’s a house where there aren’t any men.’
‘Then I’ll go right now.’ Sheherban felt her spirits lifted. This would help to reduce the piled-up bills.
She went home and changed into her son’s shirt and dhoti, picked up the hoe. Mubina, hope in her eyes, watched her go. She could well expect a share in what Sheherban earned through her labour. Mubina’s husband had left her; she had two children to support. She was Sheherban’s only sister. She sat oiling her tangled hair at the door of the rickety shack besides Sheherban’s hovel of a home.
Before she got up, Sheherban was back. She winked and smiled at Mubina’s wan face.
‘They think women’s hoeing won’t do.’ Mubina knew what would follow.
Sheherban folded up the dhoti to her knee, picked up the hoe and rapidly hoed her own three cents of land and Mubina’s two cents. This was the third time she was hoeing their yard.
She was drenched in sweat.
‘Sheherban isn’t crazy,’ she assured herself, smiling, as she threw down the hoe and wiped off the sweat, ‘I like to hoe and cut the firewood. That sort of work is paid more. What’s the use of slogging in the house like you, Mubina? You’ve to swallow their rotten rice and sambar and take a puny ten or twenty rupees! I don’t want that crap. But people don’t want me either. If they think I can’t break the earth, let them come and see this!’
‘What am I to do? He gives me just ten rupees every morning. Don’t the three of us have to eat at least twice a day? He sells quite a lot of fish—at least worth three hundred rupees! But by the time it reaches home, it shrinks to just ten! That’s Sheherban’s share! Now I’m hoping that Siraj will get a job. My son’s a good boy. Want to get him a wife once he gets a job. Shouldn’t he have some happiness in this life? That’s why I got my girl married off soon. But she’s still small, isn’t she, at just fourteen? But who’s going to marry her without dowry if she grows too old?’
The wounds on her thigh hurt as she got up from the ground. It hurt so hard that she trembled, voiceless, her face wrenched into a grimace of pain. She went inside to change. Taking off her shirt and dhoti she looked at the mirror. There were rends on her breasts, red and swollen. As she slipped on her blouse, she told herself: ‘Wish these two could be cut off with some cancer or something . . .’ But before she completed the sentence, Sheherban was already covering her mouth with her hands and begging Allah’s forgiveness.
‘Allah, forgive me! Protect my body . . . at least I can work for a living.’
With that Sheherban suddenly felt like humming a tune. Remembering the horse-urine, her mind told her that everything would be alright. He would be back by tomorrow morning at least, she calculated, finishing the evening’s cooking. She was once again humming a tune thinking that. Her husband returned then, after selling his fish. She jumped out of her reverie, hearing the bicycle fall in the yard. Her smile faded. Voice receded. Her breasts and thighs throbbed in pain.
Sheherban warmed water for his bath. Served him rice and curries. He lapped up the food, and as soon as the bed was rolled out, he called her:
‘Sherban . . . come on.’
Sheherban clung to the floor in the back of the kitchen, washing the dishes and sweeping the backyard over and over again.
‘I have work here.’ She feebly replied. But the second summons to bed was harsh. It got her there.
That was another sleepless night for Sheherban.
Through the night, again and again, Adru kept sinking his teeth into Sheherban, tearing into her flesh. Though her son wasn’t in his room, she kept up her usual tearful pleas: ‘He’ll hear us.’
They were drowned in his slurred grunts. Sheherban lay silent through the night, through her ordeal, praying to see her son the first thing in the morning.
Horse-urine can cure lust, the vaidyar had said.
When she had gone to him last time for the medicated oil, Balan vaidyar had assured her of this. That’s why she had sent her son to Kanyakumari.
Each time she had made a different excuse with the vaidyar, but then he asked so much, she had to tell the truth.
‘I’ve had enough… the wounds need time to heal, don’t they? All this is his fury. So many times each day . . . I don’t want to live any more
. . .’
Measuring out the oil into the bottle, Balan vaidyar said, ‘This sort of frenzy can only be because his nerves are all weakened by the booze. Don’t delay any more. Give him some horse-urine.’
Each time she rubbed in the oil, each time the cuts healed, Sheherban hated her own body.
But this dawn infused even her tired body with a new spryness. Just as she had prayed, her eighteen-year-old son alighted at the bus stop with a bottle of horse-urine. He was hurrying to bring it to his mother.
Sheherban sniffed at the horse-urine from Kanyakumari. Her head reeled, the odour was so strong. Yet she went into the kitchen with a lively step, telling her son, ‘sleep for a while, then.’
He’s quite alright once the booze has sunk and he’s sober. He’s warm to her too. She knew it, and this was on her mind as she lit the hearth and washed the rice. She stayed by the hearth until the rice was cooked. The best time would be after he came back from brushing his teeth, she calculated. Adru would listen to anything she said that little while. Sheherban would even feel a bit warm towards her husband then.
The rice cooked as he brushed his teeth. She poured out the gruel into a big steel glass, cooled it a bit. And then added a few drops of the horse-urine. Then, trusting all to fate, she took it to her husband, who was sitting on the front steps of the house.
‘Drink this gruel. It’ll revive you.’ Sheherban gave him the glass, brimming with affection. As he put it to his lips, she pleaded:
‘Allah, let the stink of the booze stay, let him not know the smell of horse-urine.’
But while she prayed, he had put the glass down.
‘What’s wrong?’ The question writhed in Sheherban’s mouth and fell out.
‘Didn’t like it. Stinks a bit. Didn’t you wash the rice well?’ ‘But the rice was washed.’
Adru could hardly hear Sheherban’s shrivelled voice. ‘Uh . . . that’s ration rice . . .’ he told himself.
Sheherban sat on the floor next to him, her body touching his.
‘It’s good to drink some of this.’ She held the glass out to him once
‘No.’ he said, getting up and walking away.
Sheherban stared at the glass. But how much time could she spend thus! There are a hundred chores to be done, today too! She got up, and threw the contents of the glass into the yard. As she walked back to the kitchen, all she wanted was to embrace Siraj, her darling son Siraj, and scream aloud.
“Sheherban” (Ladies Compartment. Kottayam: DC Books, 2002: 33-37), translated by J. Devika.
C.S. CHANDRIKA. She is one of the most noted Malayalam women writers of today on account of her strong feminist stance and very powerful style. She delves into the innermost recesses of the female psyche and portrays it effectively. Besides being an Activist, Columnist and a Presenter of Television programmes, she has published stories, novels, plays, monographs and criticism. Her major works include Ladies Compartment, Aarthavamulla Sthreekal (Women who Menstruate), Pira (Birth) and Bhoomiyude Pathaka ( The Flag of Earth). She has also published Keralathile Sthreemunnettangalude Charithram (The History of Women’s Movements in Kerala) which addresses certain crucial problems of historiography. Her monograph on K. Saraswati Amma was brought out by Kendra Sahitya Akademi.