Shylaja woke up from a deep daytime slumber. The summer heat, filtered somewhat by the thick foliage of the huge mango tree spreading its branches all over one side of the house, filled the room. She felt that the sound of a crow calling from far off added depth to the silence. A moment perfect in its fullness. Someone was knocking on the door. It could be Ananthakrishnan or maybe Kumaran. She sat up on the bed.
‘You can come in’ she called out.
A fold of the door opened noiselessly. In the dim light of the corridor, Ananthakrishnan. He stood there without stepping into the room.
`Don’t you want any lunch, Ammu?’ he asked. ‘It is past two o’ clock.’
`I slept a lot, didn’t I?’ Shylaja stood up. She straightened the pleats of her saree. ‘I’ll be right there’
Ananthakrishnan closed the door panel half way softly and withdrew as silently as he had come.
She had already had a taste of Kumaran’s cooking in the morning. First rate dosais, spread out so very thinly and roasted to rosy perfection. Chutney, smelling of fresh curry leaves, prepared by grinding coconut with just green chillies , then seasoning with mustard.
Shylaja sat down for lunch in anticipation. Ananthakrishnan had been
waiting for her.
Ananthakrishnan enquired of Kumaran, who was serving them, ‘I
haven’t seen Vikraman, where has he got to?’
`His belly is filled up with fish head, the naughty one.’ Kumaran said,
`There he lies, in the front room.’
Usually, Vikraman would come running when he heard movement in
the dining room.
Finishing lunch, Ananthakrishnan washed his hands and went to the
drawing room. Shylaja also did the same. Vikraman lay asleep, spread on the
cushioned chair, his stomach bloated with food. He didn’t move when called.
Ananthakrishnan sat on an adjacent chair and touched him. He purred slightly
in idle ecstasy without opening his eyes. Shylaja sat on the sofa looking at
‘Shouldn’t we go and buy the saree?’ Ananthakrishnan asked.
‘Need I come?’ Shylaja was reluctant, ‘I feel like lying down again.’
‘You are this tired because we travelled by bus.’ Ananthakrishnan said,
‘But I have no experience buying these things.’
‘Just buy what you think will suit me,’ said Shylaja. ‘And ….do not forget the shirt and dhothi for yourself, Ananthu.’
`Go to sleep then’ Ananthakrishnan got up, prepared to go, He asked,
`Ammu, you never asked what I was doing while you were asleep.’
‘Saw the registrar. He is an acquaintance.’ said Ananathakrishnan,
‘So he consulted the astrological chart himself, found out the “rahu kala” and
promised to be here by ten thirty tomorrow morning.’
‘Oh, should I have found out a special “muhurta”?’Ananathakrishnan
asked, ‘I forgot, it is because I have no faith in such things.’
A shadow passed over Shylaja’s face. Ananthakrishnan looked at her in
`Your face has become gloomy.’
‘Father married me off after making sure the birth charts agreed and fixing up the auspicious time and look what happened…..’
` Ananthakrishnan’s gaze became even more concerned. He said, ‘When you told me everything you gave me your past. Now they are not yours to worry over. They have become my experiences; you have no right over them at all.’
Shylaja looked over at Ananthakrishnan and smiled slightly. Moisture gleamed in her eyes. Ananthakrishnan’s house was very big, with many rooms. But he was using only two rooms properly. One to sleep in the other to store his books and papers and to sit reading. This reading room was the one he had given over for Shylaja’s use. The room was full of book shelves. The choice of books made it evident that Ananthakri shn an was greatly attracted to philosophy —Aurobindo, Krishnarnurthi, Whitehead, Marcel, Sreeramakrishnan……
Devarajan also used to read heavy books, Shylaja remembered. His favourite subjects had been literature and politics. Shylaja had learnt to select and read worthwhile books and magazines under his tutelage. It is usual for boys and girls living next door to fall in love. Even so, the love that blossomed between Devarajan and Shylaja was extraordinarily strong, so very true. Shylaja was studying in the tenth standard, Devarajan for his degree, in the second year of the course. Intoxicated by his love, he scored badly in the exams. Shylaja made sure that her mind did not wander and worked hard because she felt that scoring badly was a blow to self esteem. When she passed her pre-degree exams with good marks her father was insistent that she study medicine. At the time it was quite impossible for Shylaja to keep from seeing Devarajan. Just a look was enough, at least once every two or three days. But it was Devarajan who took pride in her achievements that compelled her to go. He was doing his postgraduate finals then.
Shylaja just wanted to take a degree in some subject or other. And marry Devarajan, even if he was still jobless. After all they had the family land to fall back on, so there wouldn’t be much of a problem, she had reasoned. Wouldn’t all those dreams have reached fulfillment if she had not become a doctor? Would her father have wanted to cut off the taproot of the love in her heart and replant it elsewhere?
She had lain fasting as protest against the marriage her father had fixed. Her plea was that she be allowed to remain single if marriage to the man she loved was not possible. But she lost her confidence when confronted with her father’s threat of suicide. He was a person who kept his word. In the circumstances Shylaja had fought with the reasonable solution of ending her own life. But she had always deemed suicide an act of rebellion against God. She decided to allow the life that had lost its roots and cast off to find its own resting place.
Her wedding took place at Guruvayoor. She saw the groom only at the venue of the ceremony. Then she realised it was a face she had seen before -Balachandran, the son of her father’s friend. A doctor who had grown up and been educated in Bangalore city. She had been unsuspecting when he had explained that he was delivering the things that her father had sent. The event had completely escaped her mind as something that need not be remembered.
Isn’t survival the basic nature of life? So it started to sprout roots at the place it had come to rest. In the first days of marital life, it had not been possible to hide from Balachandran the fact that she was all broken up within. Balachandran turned out a good friend once he realised everything. He forbore and forgave a lot. A good doctor, an even better human being.
Balachandran’s hands grasping the steering wheel, beside them two little hands adorned with gold amulets. A picture that haunted the memory all the time — the final picture that had etched itself onto her mind. A happy Balachandran driving the car. On his lap, daughter Mitali, father’s darling. It had not been long after her second birthday. Her shining black hair had been parted and put up into pigtails on either side. Shylaja could remember hearing a crash similar to a thunder bolt. She recovered consciousness after a week to grasp painfully that she was the sole survivor.
Her father used to visit her in hospital, sitting beside her, full of remorse. She had remained impassively silent.
One day, Devarajan had come. Only a short time had elapsed after his marriage. He said, in a quavering voice when long moments of silence had passed, ‘Before, I did not have the understanding to give you strength, now, I don’t have the ability’.
When his palm rested on her forehead for a moment, she had broken down for the first time in years. She had cried then, a lot.
Now, there was a high tide of memories in Shylaja. She felt an inexplicable ache inside her. She was on the brink of accepting another love, preparing once again for marital life. Ananthakrishnan was Kunjananthu of the past. He had been present in her childhood memories as a part of her father’s family homestead with the `ilanji’ flowers dropping down in the yard and the serpent grove and swinging vines. He was the son of Madhaviamma, father’s younger sister. They were of the same age.
The business that Appukutta Menon, Madhaviamma’s husband, started in that locality failed miserably. Father saw Appukuttan Uncle as a good for nothing and behaved accordingly. So Appukuttan Uncle sold his shop and went back to his native place.
Madhaviamma accompanied her husband leaving behind the family home that she also had a share in. Shylaja had been very unhappy about the separation. But then gradually she had forgotten all that.
Three months ago, Shylaja was taken aback to realise that the handsome young man waiting in the hospital visitor’s room was Ananthu.
`Kunjananthu who used to tag after me calling out Ammu!’
`The bossy girl in frocks who used to talk loudly and intimidate me!’
Both of them could not help laughing. So was Ravindran, Ananthakrishnan’s friend who came with him.
Ananthakrishnan had already been to Bangalore several times to visit Ravindran, but never had he known that Shylaja was in Bangalore. After all she had only been a buried dream deep down in the recesses of his mind.
When his mother had decided six months earlier to revisit her family home after years of keeping away, Ananthakrishnan was the one to accompany her. Along with a lot of other information, he had been given Shylaja’s address too. He had decided then and there to visit his old childhood playmate who now lived totally immersed in her job to ward off the intense loneliness of widowhood.
He came to see her once. Then he saw her again. And again. Mostly in the evenings. Sometimes in the hospital waiting room. At other times in Cubbon Park. A journey to Nandi Hills when Shylaja was free. The history of the years that had elapsed without their seeing each other dripped down in continuous streams of sorrow, pleasures, stories…….
The two weeks that Ananthakrishnan spent in Bangalore whizzed by, without being noticed.
At the time of taking leave he handed over a handful of `kadamba’ bouquets. And a small gift packet along with an instruction in the manner of city friendships, `to be opened only on getting back to your room’.
Shylaja opened the packet in the solitude of her room. A golden ring studded with white stones. And a note along with it,
‘I shall do to you
What Spring does to the cherry trees.’
Shylaja read the bit of poetry once again with a fast beating heart. Like the Spring touching the cherry trees…. No, how can I forget everything and renew my life so very easily, naturally? She spent days telling herself, No, I cannot, I cannot, until Ananathakrishnan’s phone call came…..
`Ammu, this is me, Ananthu. What I wrote that day….’ he asked.
She interrupted him, ‘The ring was a little loose. So I put another one too so that it will not slip off…..’
After a moment’s silence she heard his voice soften. `Oh, how wonderful! You have accepted! I am the luckiest man on earth!’
What are you doing after insisting that you do not want to be married at all? That was how Ananthakrishnan’s father voiced his disapproval. Shylaja’s father, not daring to oppose, gave his daughter the advice to think it over, thus expressing his lack of joy. Sitting on the green meadows of Nandi Hills, Ananthakrishnan told Shylaja, ‘let us go to our native place — to my home — our home —’
‘Take leave for the time being, Ammu.’
Hearing the sound of Ananthakrishnan’s jeep coming to a halt in the yard outside, Shylaja lay without getting up. Let him come to me. Straight here. She thought. After a while he came in with a happy face.
`Did you sleep?’
`No, I lay thinking.’
`You can think. But you are not permitted to think and grow sad.’ He sat down on her bed with the packages. Then he took out the shining gold `thali’ chain from his pocket to show her. Her wide open eyes filled.
`Hey, what is this?’ he wiped her eyes carefully. ‘Did you forget so soon that you are not allowed to bear sorrow?’ Shylaja laughed.
`Isn’t this a new rule? Shouldn’t you give me some time to live according to it?’
‘Of course’, he said ‘Now we can drink a cup of tea listening to Daler Mehendi’s songs, Oh, don’t you want to see the saree and dhothi for the wedding?’
Shylaja sat up in bed.
At that moment a wasp entered the room and began to go round with a monotonous buzsing. Shylaja saw that Ananthakrishnan was watching it.
`The ways of this creature! If it takes a liking for a place, it makes it its own! Can’t you see its piece of soil, suspended without touching the ground’?’ A flash of light burned and trembled within her. ‘Suspended piece of soil? What do you mean?’
A piece of soil that stood without touching the earth! What a concept! Wasn’t the earth that circled in space without any support similar to this?
`What is it Ananthu?’ she asked.
`Look there, in the lamp shade,’ `Isn’t that the wasp’s nest?’
`Yes, here it is called the soil that does not touch the earth, the suspended
`It seems it was cursed by Lord Brahma for doing something it should not have. So it is doomed to lock worms inside the nest and go round it chanting spells….until the time the worms gain the form of the wasp.’ The wasp hummed around the lampshade. ‘What are you going to do?,’ she asked again.
`I am going to get up on this table and pierce the nest with a ruler.’
Shylaja felt as if the hurting light inside her was becoming sharper and sharper scorching her and blowing out over the whole world. Earth, existing in a vacuum as the stagnancy of motion itself….Sun, a lump of boiling light, standing apart from everything else, the entire universe with not a thing being touched by another! Molecules revolving within cells without touching one another!
Shylaja’s eyes overflowed. The state of countless crores of mortal beings, all craving stability! The wasp which used its body sources to mix medicinal secretions with powdered sand to create nests that could be tapped off by human beings —wasn’t it the same senselessness that the small birds showed building their nests on insecure branches to lay eggs? And the snakes that in their search for dark holes traversed roads where they could very well be trodden down under wheels? And the slums that sprout up in the outskirts not prepared to think of the bulldozers the city governing body used over them? And the skyscrapers that rose up above the ground unaware of the cracks underneath?
A great flow of life’s energy surged up in Shylaja’s blood. She ran upto Ananthakrishnan and hugged him. She laid her face on his neck and broke into tears.
‘What happened, Ammu?’ Ananthakrishnan asked in distress.
‘Those are the wasp’s little ones, in that nest.’
‘Don’t, please don’t cry.’ He kissed her forehead tenderly and hugged her tightly. His eyes also filled with love.
Translated from Malayalam by Sulochana Ram Mohan
O.V. Usha is a Malayalam poet and short story writer. She was editor and Director of Publications at the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam.
‘Suspended Soil’ is one of the more tender takes that Usha has penned. The loss that Shylaja has faced, the tender promise of love and a vision of connectedness and fragility that mankind experiences is evocatively captured by the author. Like the touch of spring on the cherry trace, it is a tale that is both rich with suggestions and one that is not touched by artificialites.
SULOCHANA RAM MOHAN. Accomplished poet, translator and critic. Her critical studies of the stories of Chandramathi and Ashitha have won her great acclaim. She recently published a collection f short stories in Malayalam.