“Taking one’s own life — surely that’s a sign of cowardice — of inadequacy and cowardice.”
“I won’t grant you that it’s cowardice. Is it cowardice to throw yourself before a moving train?”
“Oh, no, brave of you, then? Just go and take your own life when things don’t work out your way. I would say it is cowardice if you run away from reverses because you don’t have the guts to face them.”
I believe strongly that it wouldn’t do to interfere in discussions on topics like this especially if passions run high, and if a lot of men happened to be present.
If you want men to say approvingly “Oh, she’s nice” about you, you’d better listen to both sides of an argument
Politely with a smile — if you happen to have a pretty smile, all the better — but you’d better not commit yourself.
I hadn’t kept quiet remembering this little bit of practical wisdom. I never could listen to statements about suicide without fear. Every time I come across news items about someone committing suicide I cannot rest till I’ve read the person’s name. And I feel disturbed when my younger brother reads aloud his favourite deaths and disaster stories in the newspaper.
One fateful day will it feature Neeraja Chakravarti’s name too? Neeraja Chakravarti — Neeraja who had a very fair complexion, black hair tinged lightly with brown and eyes with just a hint of grey.
Neeraja. The ill-fated heroine of Tagore’s “Malancho” also had the same name. I haven’t come across either an English or a Malayalam translation of “Malachi.” A cousin who knows Bengai once narrated the story to me. He never wrote stories himself but he could tell them well so it touched your heart. Every time I see the crescent moon through silver clouds, I am reminded of the fair feet of Tagore’s Neeraja glimpsed through the folds of her white shawl.
It is three years since I made her acquaintance.
I was walking around in our yard relishing the fact that I didn’t have to go to office on a Sunday.
“Oppol, the woman who stays in the southern house wants you,” said my younger brother, running in.
It was only a few days since somebody moved newly into the big house on the south. Some big shot in the navy. North Indian. This is what we learned. When I went to the fence on the southern side, I found the maid waiting for me. “She told me to find out whether Amma spoke either Hindi or English.”
“I don’t speak Hindi but I do speak English”.
The servant maid went into the house. My patience was running out when Neeraja finally came out.
Even on that day, I had been struck by her slim, shapely figure.
She asked me something. Putting on airs, I said a few sentences in English.
I studied in a Hindi-medium school” she said timidly.
I was immediately sorry that I’d put on airs to impress the poor thing. Her maid turned up at eight in the morning, which was too late for her. She wanted me to tell the maid that she was to come earlier.
I conveyed her request to the Muslim woman who worked as her maid and she agreed. Neeraja and I stood around, talking for some more time. Her husband left at eight in the morning; the maid at nine or nine-thirty. After which, she was all alone in the house. Sometimes she got scared, she said. I told her to come right over if she got scared or if she needed something. I showed her where a stile had been built into the fence. The former tenants had been on good terms with us.
The stile had been built then.
Next day, after returning from office in the evening, I was having my tea when she came in hesitantly. She had a small packet of caraway seeds in her hand. She wanted the Malayalam word for it. She took it down in Hindi and after staying around chatting for a short while, left.
I cannot say for sure just when our acquaintance deepened into friendship. She used to come over as soon as I got back after work and stay till her husband turned up at six. And almost every Sunday her husband had some special duty or other. As soon as he left, she would come over.
My younger brothers christened her’Oppoi’s white. mouse’.
She, who had never known the hardship of having to work for a living, found my busy schedule and always being rushed for time, a novel experience. Bringing pending work home and pouring over the files till midnight — she didn’t seem to have seen a woman who worked so hard. Soon she picked up enough Malayalam to call me ‘chechi.’
I hate doing chores round the house. But how can I shirk them? I have to cram everything into a Sunday. Once she happened to find me ironing my sarees, sweating over the work. From then on she used to come over, iron and fold my sarees. Or, at times, she’d take them over to her house and return them neatly ironed. When my younger brothers were at home she’d invariably take them home quietly.
Amma would find fault with me.
“After all, she’s a big officer’s wife. Do you think it right to let her do all this for you?”
If I tried to stop her, she’d only be upset.
Her life with her rich, powerful and middle-aged husband wasn’t a happy one. Everyone drinks in the navy, don’t they?
She never said anything. She never used to talk about family affairs. But you can always make out if anything’s amiss.
I could read a tale of sadness in every movement of hers and even in her intimacy with me. She never told me whether she had a Romeo back home in her village that nestled in the valley of Bareilly Hills with snow-capped mountains for a backdrop. May be she did. May be she didn’t.
To get away from the busy routine and to rest awhile, I availed of all leave due to me and went and stayed with an aunt in my native place. When I returned, a little bit plumper and a shade darker, I learnt that, Neeraja was going to be a mother. An end to her problems, I thought.
Even when she was extremely tired, big tummy and all, she came over to do my hair and iron my sarees.
Her husband did not accompany her when she went home for her confinement. It was a peon or an orderly that went along with her. The day after she left for home her maid came and told me she’d found a bottle of pills in the laundry basket.
She showed it to me. They were iron and vitamin pills taken as dietary supplement. Neeraja’s doctor must have prescribed them. She had taken only one pill or may be two. What made her hide the bottle in the laundry basket? Certainly not because of the bitter taste. You were supposed to swallow the pills. Then why?
“Amma has always been like that. There was some medicine which she was supposed to drink. How many times have I seen her pouring it out of the window!”
“Now look here don’t talk nonsense. She might have misplaced the bottle.”
“If you say so Amma, let it be so.”
For a few days I kept thinking about the pills that were hidden in the laundry basket and the medicine that had been poured out of the window.
It was my brother who told me the news. He’d met and spoken to Mr.Chakravarti on the way. Neeraja gave birth to a child but the child was no more. And she was down with a very bad fever.
She came back after three months. When she came I wasn’t there to meet her. 1 was in my office. She came over in the evening to my place. She had been reduced to a ghost of her former self and looked at least ten years older than she actually was. And I saw her tears for the first time.
“I never thought only one of us would go. I was so sure that both of us would go.”
I didn’t know how to console her. She didn’t remain my neighbour for long after that. Her husband was transferred to some other place.
I offered to help her pack but she wouldn’t let me.
“Someone has been sent from the naval base. He’ll do the packing. You just sit here.”
I was on leave the day they left. I was afraid that her husband wouldn’t like it if I turned up at the railway station, so I stood at the gate to see them off. She took leave of my mother with folded hands and cuddled my elder brother’s child.
She was not crying. Her face was unusually pale. She said “Goodbye, Chechi” without looking at me.
“You mean au revoir,” I said. “No, it is goodbye.” I wasn’t sure whether she realised the meaning of the term. A small voice from inside me spoke: She is right. You will never meet her again. This really is the final goodbye.
I used to receive letters in her beautiful hand every other month or so.
She never seemed to have anything to say about herself. They were letters written just to elicit a response from me. They say those who commit suicide are cowards and fools.
My Neeraja, who was capable of so much love — Neeraja, who didn’t know what fear meant.
Translated by R.K. Jayasree from Malayalam
Rajalekshmi was born on 2 June 1930 at Cherplassery in Palakkad into a middle class Nair family as the youngest of five children. Her mother, who had no English education, confined herself to running the household and regaling the children with stories from the epics It was her lawyer father who took care of the children’s education. He was particularly fond of his vivacious youngest daughter, who evinced a love of reading from very early on. He encouraged her no end, getting her the sort of books she needed and when she was old enough, giving her the run of his library. In 1956, when she was twenty-six, she made a spectacular entry into the literary arena with a story entitled ‘The Daughter’. Thus began a literary career which spanned barely ten years. ‘The Daughter’ was followed by a novel A Path and a Few Shadows in 1958. She wrote it at a time when the Malayalam literary scene, especially with reference to fiction, was going through a particularly fecund period. Yet, she could hold her own among her illustrious compatriots and was hailed as a major female voice. Then in 1960 Mathrubhmi Weekly started the serialisation of The Scorching Sun and the Gentle Moon. The serialisation was dropped abruptly for which no reason was offered at the time. N.V. Krishna Warrier, the editor of Mathrubhumi, writing after the novelist was no more, disclosed that someone had found the novel uncomfortably close to the story of his own life and hounded the writer into retracting it. She had at the time insisted on the manuscript being returned to her. She burned it. She is said to have made her first attempt at committing suicide at around this time. At any rate, she stopped writing for a while Writing was what she loved best in life and she returned to it after a gap of two years. She wrote to her sister “I cannot exist with out writing. If I write, I make people hate me. I’m like a pariah dog.” She wrote her best short stories as also two exquisite poems in prose during this period. She wrote her third and last novel in 1964. It was being serialised in The Mathrubhumi weekly she committed suicide on 18 January, 1965.
Rajalekshmi’s repertoire is indeed limited. But within her limited scope, she has succeeded in depicting life as it was lived, mostly by men and women of her generation. It is perfectly true that most of her characters are easily pigeonholed into neat little categories and that she had a predilection for symbolic suicides as a motif in her stories. At any rate, she seems to have had a central core around which she built her people, especially the women, in whose case the core element consists of their status as victims. With very few exceptions, all her women are victims. They differ only in degree never in kind. We invariably meet them when they are trying to hold their own against forces that threaten to unravel the very fabric of their lives. Life, for most of them is something that wouldn’t bear a closer scrutiny. They are aware that they too have a right to happiness and fulfilment but this thought is hardly ever articulated.
“The Suicide” is, incidentally, one of her best stories. It is a surprising story in more ways than one. There have been attempts to interpret it too literally, saying that it foreshadows her own intention to commit suicide. It should be viewed more as an attempt on the writer’s part to get even with a society that circumscribed her life, creative as well as personal. The narrator is a woman, obviously educated financially independent, -she is everything that Rajaleksmi herself was. What is surprising is the fact that hardly any feminine quality is ascribed to her. If her gender had not been disclosed deliberately by pointers in the story, we might as well have taken the narrator to be male. Neeraja occupies the other end of the spectrum- beautiful, timid, needing and seeking help, rousing all the protective instincts of the other woman in the story, the narrator.
It wouldn’t be too wide off the mark to say that the two women represent the two facets of the author’s own personality After all, there must have been conflict between these two selves in her — one aware of itself and the outside world, forward- looking, rebellious even, and the other — traditional, timorous and constantly feeling the need to conform. To begin with, Neeraja is placed in an inferior position with respect to the narrator who views her with barely concealed condescension. But in the end, Neeraja turns the tables on her complacency. She is admitted to being an equal. Committing suicide, the author seems to imply, is not a means of escape, but of protest.
RAJALEKSHMI. Noted Malayalam Novelist and Short Story writer. Death is a haunting theme in her works.
JAYASREE R.K. Teaches English at Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam. Has translated fiction from Malayalam to English.