“Quite unconsciously, he grew to fill out her mind. Like the saintly hermit in Sravana Belgola who comes in view whichever corner of the city you look from, whichever corner of her mind she looked from, he came into view.”
These are the first two lines of the story Sunanda had begun writing. But Sunanda’s husband was not to let that naked hermit grow in size any further. The story’s current lone listener y-a-w-n-e-d, and impatiently stretched his clasped hands above his head.
Sunanda saw red. I should have known better than to read the story to this nincompoop! That too, to one whose entire vocabulary revolves around the word “client, client”.
Ask about any institution in Thrissur marketplace that has declined in profits and collapsed, he will say, “Of course I know them, aren’t they our clients?” ‘Our?’ Certainly not Sunanda’s. That of Chartered Accountants: Menon and Johnson – the Menon being Sunanda’s husband.
He picked up a black, striped T-shirt he wore at home – foreign made – from the coat stand in the corner. As he went down the stairs after putting it on, he scoffed audibly enough for Sunanda to hear: “These women’s stories!”
Sunanda had no need to ask her husband what was wrong with “women’s stories.” She heard it only too often – as recently as the day before.
At 5.30 yesterday evening, it was Sudha Chandrasekharan who read a poem on television. Sunanda had long known Sudha, as a smalltime poet. When Sudha came on to the screen, dressed in a black and red sari, ears and neck bereft of jewellery, what came to Sunanda’s mind were the female oracles wending their way to Kodungallur Kavu.
Immediately Sunanda’s call went out in search of the husband sitting in his office downstairs:
“Do come, it is Sudha.”
Not that she hoped he may improve his mind listening to Sudha’s poem. It was more in the nature of a hint. Why shouldn’t she too be allowed to become a TV star?
With the enunciation of that word Sudha’s face seemed to rise above the loudspeaker which stood up like the hood of a snake. With a coquettish motion of her neck more than familiar to Sunanda, she pecked at the script on the lectern much as a pigeon pecking at feed.
“A mother, I am
Whose sons plough sleep apart”
By the time Sudha had recited the line a second time, an uncontainable Jealousy had possessed Sunanda. She sat in the rattan chair with her head in her hands. Her husband who had obeyed summons, asked her,
What if he has not learnt texts of Grammar or Stylistics? That auditor knew that to be poetry, it must be verse.
Sunanda watched in consternation as a sob accompanied the familiar voice at a poignant spot in the poem.
The eyes that were then raised to the audience were duly tinged with tears.
“But mother earth, your lights never sleep Like the eternal ones that brighten up
The love in my eyes. “
“Ha,ha,ha. It has come, it has come. I was wondering why she wasn’t uttering love, love.” Her husband’s spontaneous laughter made Sunanda laugh as well.
“Man, and love – write these two words and it is poetry for women.”
With an auditor for husband she had managed to spare herself the remark of litterateurs that women’s writing is a game of clichés. For all that, was it laudable good sense that she exercised, in reading her stories to such a man?
So what happened?
The naked hermit’s unusual growth got halted in the story. Sunanda was a bit saddened at the thought. Truth to tell, she wrote her stories for somebody else.
She couldn’t tell her husband that.
At noon yesterday, a voice hiding within the phone receiver said to her “Listen, if you don’t write, I don’t love you.”
She must write. After all, there can be no less expensive way of getting love in this world, than writing.
So it was, one Sunday morning she waited for tardy inspiration. But the poet Gopinath Madakatra was less tardy and came riding his bike. As she loved to hear the rare words of praise he occasionally offered, to hear it over and over again, Sunanda susceptible to flattery, came down the stairs.
As she came down, she saw that her husband had relinquished his calculator, pen and paper on to the coffee table to engage in polite conversation with the poet. He could not usually suffer the presence of a
guest for longer than half an hour. It was quite amusing to watch him seemingly submit to conversation while sending up silent prayers for merciful deliverance.
As soon as he saw Sunanda, the poet turned from his conversation with her husband.
“Did you hear our Sudha’s poem yesterday? How was it?” “Terrible. Quite alarming!” Though she knew it would reach Sudha’s ears only too soon, she said it fearlessly.
Her husband said amazed: “And you were all praise for the poem yesterday!”
That was yesterday.
“Sons ploughing furrows into sleep. Wasn’t it good imagery? I liked it”, said the poet.
“Is there a mammal in a skirt whose poetry you don’t like?”
To avoid listening to praise going other women’s way, Sunanda affected the courtesies and offered, “Would you like some tea?” Then with exaggerated respect, turned towards the kitchen and called out, “Sulochana, Sulochanamma, two cups of tea, please.”
But Sunanda well knew the poet was not to get any tea that day. The sound of Sulochana washing clothes in the outside bathroom told her that the maid was not in the kitchen. Which meant she herself should make tea . . . did she want to go that far?
“I have come to remind you of the literary camp of the Youth Power on the 20th.”
Sunanda chose not to look at her husband’s darkening visage.
From his bag lying curled up like a stray dog on the light blue velvet settee, the poet extracted a pamphlet.
“See, your name is on it, Sunanda.”
Ignoring the pamphlet extended to him, her husband muttered something. The very mention of a Literary Workshop incensed him. Even so, humble supplication had allowed her to attend thus far, three different
workshops on Sundays.
“Have you sent your story? I had mentioned you to the Camp Director.”
“What for?” Asked Sunanda sadly. “Why Gopinath?” Instructors who read and edit stories have never taken notice of
Sunanda’s writing. Except for the last study session.
That day it was the bespectacled teacher from Edavilangu School who was the Instructor. A poet!
She picked up a docket from her file and called out the name. “Sunanda.”
Sunanda forgot to stand up in response. A seat-mate asked quietly: “It is the first time your story has been picked for reading. Is it not so, Auntie?”
She did not like her seniority rubbed in by calling her ‘auntie’, but she asked: “Yes. How did you know?”
“You are trembling, auntie.”
The peculiar boldness that made its presence visible even in Sunanda’s fingertips was hastily hidden away in the edge of the sari.
The poet ran her eyes over the hand-written script and then turned to her, “You are Sunanda?”
Sunanda admitted guilt as charged.
The instructor’s long painted nails scratched the space below her written name and then she seemed lost in thought.
“O Lord! Is this woman scratching out my name?”, feared Sunanda.
The poet roused herself from abstraction to say, “Let me read this story to you”, to her listeners.
The workshop students, seated in a semi circle, dragged their seats tighter around in an effort to get a closer involvement with the story. The instructor opened a canvas bag, not very commonly in use, took out a smaller purse and extracted a piece of tissue paper. It was when she was
wiping her glasses with it that Sunanda became conscious of the intense anxiety assailing her. Her brow and underarms were perspiring profusely in indication. Even so, with assumed indifference, she directed her eyes all around Room 15 of the Model Girls’ School.
At the right end of the blackboard was marked Friday’s attendance. IXC. 43/45. Who could have been the two who claimed attention by their absence? Perhaps one of them usually warmed this seat where I am sitting now, thought Sunanda. She drew her hand out of her sari to feel if any warmth was still left behind – but there was the teacher beginning her story.
“At the parting of the ways, an unconscious reminder alerts me: beware, it is the beginning of a loner’s journey.”
Oh! that this story should be read at the wrong place, at the wrong time, in a false voice!
“Like a housewife handling appliances nearing the end of the guarantee period, the lover in her feared : is this love too showing wear and tear?”
The listener beside her nudged her gently. With that Sunanda touched the earth.
“Doesn’t this sound too emotional?” asked the poet of the audience.
They nodded vigorously in total agreement. “See the vulgar poetic language used?”
From the St. Mary’s College contingent, Kessiya Nisha Koladi, winner of the first prize in poetry at the Youth festival, raised her hand.
“Of course. Modern literature is turning away from such excesses of emotion and romance. For example…”
Sunanda’s ears burned.
For exaggerated expression, artificial language, and lack of step with the times, we may see this story as an example. It is for that purpose that I chose to read this story.
As whose mouthpiece is her tongue now wagging, wondered Sunanda close to tears. Only a young boy, with red lips and a greenish hue under the nose as forerunner of insipient hair, at the right end of the semicircle, noticed it.
“Outdated hypotheses”, the poet muttered turning over the script. “Fortunately it has not yet a title”, she consoled herself turning to
the first page.
“That’s left to us readers,” declared somebody from the back benches.
“Okay then. Give it a head. Give the story a good heading,” the poet looked at the assembly. Nobody spoke.
“Well, I will do it myself.”
Sunanda looked at her with burning eyes.
Feigning light-hearted banter, she said, “This is a bad story. So I call it ‘A bad Story!’”
They all laughed and banged the tables in enthusiastic appreciation.
And what of the singled out, humiliated author?
She ruminated in silence – “No, no, I can never take to her. Not this double chinned poet from Edavilangu school – never.”
Sunanda now recalled that the poet before her, Gopinath Madakatra, doesn’t know about that silent resolve. Or that since then, the very mention of a Literary Camp left a nerve throbbing in her neck.
He was waxing eloquent to her husband about how good the layout of the pamphlet was, how great the print.
Beauty of layout? Beauty of script? To an auditor! Not withstanding, her husband was doing his best to hold his own in that conversation.
“Is the 20th a working day?” “Oh no. It’s a Sunday.”
“If only it was a working day for the Kodungallur Educational District,” moaned Sunanda sadly. “Ha,ha…” the poet burst out laughing. “You are afraid of that teacher, aren’t you?”
He continued to laugh and stammered through it: “No reprieve likely there. She would even take leave of absence to attend Literary Camps.”
His own prophesy made him laugh even more, and he finally blurted: “The lady really rattled you that day, didn’t she?”
Still smarting under the indignity, Sunanda’s eyes filled again. “Who?” asked her husband. But the poet took no notice at all. “Why do you fear her, Sunanda?”
Sunanda recalled that she feared, not only her, but everything about her, down to the gilded spots on the gold bordered handloom sari she had worn that day.
The poet told Sunanda’s husband: “that lady has written seven poems in all. Each with fourteen lines. Fourteen times seven, ninety eight.”
“Say one hundred.” The auditor advanced two more lines on his own account and increased the poetic treasury to a hundred. “So what!”
“So what? So, she can brazenly edit other people’s work. Great hundred-line poet!”
Gopinath Madakatra rose. Even as he stood up, he scoffed loudly, “That too, lines like yesterday’s leftovers.”
Sunanda silently retorted, “Why didn’t you exhibit this courage and speak up loudly at the literary camp?”
“ Touch-me-not!”, the poet teased her.
Her husband did not quite appreciate such tender familiarity. Through the corner of her eyes, Sunanda saw his irritation. But she said nothing. Though she knew that the scolding and the accusations – why do you have to be coquettish with the likes of him – and tears to overflow her eyes, were to follow.
“Little idiot!”, the poet reprimanded her authoritatively. “Why do you waste energy on people like her? Writing needs single-mindedness and restraint, not fear.”
Sunanda did not understand a word of it. But considering the poet to be her saviour, she assumed them to be words of encouragement.
He stepped out into the veranda and said: “I’ll come in the evening.
Have the story ready.”
“But Gopi, I haven’t yet…”
“I will come in the evening. Have the story ready.”
As he clambered on to the bike left outside the gate, the husband lowered his voice to say,
“Poor guy! He stayed so long – should have given him a cup of
Considering the literary distance he had pedalled from Madakatra
to the city, Sunanda felt so too.
“But,” the husband said, “all I have is a lone Sunday. I am not going to let you ruin that holiday with your story-writing.”
Sunanda did not respond. Why bother? Why worry about a permission that could easily be won with just the proper blend of coquetry and tears.
But what does she blend to turn out an applause-worthy story which is two or three dimensional? Her crowning anxiety now was to think that the noonday sun would promptly dim, it would soon be five o’clock, and that the cyclist poet would be back there.
Even goaded by such anxiety, her great hero who resembled the hermit at Sravana Belgola and had taken possession of her entire mind, refused to acquire a stature to suit the story. She created various attires, physiques, countenance, and speech for him, only to know despair. In her desperation, she did not even hear her little son’s cries from the backyard, screaming in defiance of all the petting and cajoling of the servant maid.
However, the little one’s cries did disturb the husband, and he raised his voice to say: “What are you doing there? Don’t you hear the babe crying?”
In the end, the mother who failed at the story went to her son who had refused to stop crying, even with the treat of having the crow on the drumstick tree in the backyard, pointed out to him.
As soon as he saw her, he held out both arms, crying, and lurched towards her. She made a feast of kissing his cheeks as she took him into the bedroom, disgusted with herself. What am I doing instead of breastfeeding him and singing him lullabies, going about obsessed with stories and poems?
As she lay beside him sideways and gave him her breast, she was astounded to note her diminutive image in his little eyes. Really, what am I? Am I so small and unattractive?
The baby clamped his budding milk teeth with all his strength and hurt his mother.
“No biting, babe!”
Having woken her up from her sleep walk with that massive bite, he opened his mouth and laughed, some milk still lingering at the back of his mouth. Sunanda looked carefully into that dear little mouth – can she see the wonders of fourteen different worlds in it? Are there fourteen wonderstruck mothers before the little darling? And once again in those fourteen little mouths . . . in anxious appeal to the elusive multiplication tables for fourteen, mother Yasoda fell asleep!
In that sleep, some little mischief maker from somewhere inspired
With a clear vision of the path to follow, Sunanda woke up, picked
up pen and paper and sat down to write.
Not a story. Stories cannot handle tactics.
So, a review of poetry – of one and half pages. On the poetry of the teacher from Edavilangu School.
As she folded a wide margin to the paper, she thought of the poet Madakatra. Whatever would he say when he reads this false praise? What is this rubbish Sunanda has written?
As if whispering to the leaves waving in the wind outside the window, Sunanda gave hushed voice, in extreme secrecy, to a truth: tradition has it, that you may utter falsehood in games, or to save life. What I do now, what I am doing with this false praise Gopi, is to save my life. I must be spared capital punishment in future workshops.
With that, a calmed Sunanda began writing her review of poetry.
An inspired title is what came down: ‘The fire-tongued Nightingale’.
Even though no fiery lines of poetry to light up the title occurred to her, she drew a long straight line under it. Then she gave a war cry to the permanent member of literary workshops.
Let me see you revamp this title!
(The original in Malayalam is titled “Chila Rachana Tanthrangal (Silppasaalakalil Kittathava)”. Gita Hiranyante Kadhakal. Thrissur: Current, 2008).
Translated by Sreedevi K. Nair
SREEDEVI K. NAIR. Is Associate Professor of English, NSS College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Her interest areas are Translation Studies and Women’s Writing. All the stories in this issue of Samyukta are translated by her.