‘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. If you ran away from reverses because you lacked the guts to face them I would say you are a coward.’
I generally believe that it wouldn’t do to intervene in discussions on topics like this especially if passions run high, and if a lot of men happen 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, wonderful) but you’d better not commit yourself.
I hadn’t kept quiet remembering this little bit of practical wisdom. I cannot bring myself to listen to statements on suicide without feeling apprehensive. Every time I come across a news item 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 fair skin, black hair shot with brown, and eyes with just a tint 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 ‘Malancho.’ A cousin who knows Bengali once narrated the story to me. Though he never wrote stories himself, Kuttettan could tell them so effectively it touched your heart. Every time I see a sliver of the moon through silver clouds, I am reminded of the pretty feet of Tagore’s Neeraja glimpsed through the folds of her white shawl.
It has been 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 work on a Sunday.
‘Oppol, the woman who stays in the house on the south wants you,’ said my younger brother, running up.
It was only a few days since somebody had moved newly into the big house on the south. We had learned that he was some big shot in the navy and was a North Indian. When I went to the fence on the south I found the maid waiting for me.
‘She would like to know whether Amma spoke either Hindi or English.’
‘I don’t speak Hindi but I do speak English.’
The servant maid went back into the house. My patience was running out when Neeraja finally came out.
I noticed the beauty of her slim, shapely figure on that day too.
To something that she asked me I spoke a few sentences in English in great affectation.
‘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 used to turn to up at eight in the morning, which wouldn’t do at all; she was to come earlier – that was her request.
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 came 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 evening I had come home from the office and 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 home from work and stay till her husband turned up at six. And almost every Sunday her husband left on some special duty or other. As soon as he left, she would
My younger brothers christened her ‘Oppol’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 files till midnight-she didn’t seem to have seen a woman work so hard. Soon she picked up enough Malayalam to call me ‘chechi.’
I hate doing chores round the house. Still how could I get around 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 quietly and return them neatly ironed, especially when my younger brothers were at home.
Amma used to pick on me.
‘She’s the wife of a big officer. 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 her family. But you can always make out if anything’s amiss. I 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 nestles in the valley of the Bareilly foot 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 village. When I returned, a little bit plumper and a shade darker, I learnt that Neeraja was going to be a mother. Her problems would soon be over, I thought.
Even when she was extremely tired, big belly 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 had 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, let it be so Amma.’
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 had given birth to a child but it was no more. And she was down with a very bad fever.
She came back only after three months. When she arrived I wasn’t there to meet her. I 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 had aged by at least ten years. And for the first time I saw her in tears.
‘I never thought only one of us would go. I was so sure that both of us would.’
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, chechi.’
I took 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 realized 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 -‘