As she talked, Amma’s eyes scanned the room: ’There’s a fly !’
The fly swat she held came down with force… a fly‘s corpse lay on the teapoy.
We were sitting in the drawing toom, drinking tea. Amma held her teacup
in one hand, the fly swat in the other. Amma uses one or the other of the two fly swats in this house to kill flies. The blue one is used most often in the kitchen, the red in all other places. The red fly swat is Amma’s inseparable companion.
The red fly swat was bought from France. lt was when she was staying with Aruna in Tripoli that Amma began her search for a fly swat to be brought home. Amma had gone to France alone that time, to be with Aruna during her second confinement. She saw with her own eyes, flies as big as jackfruit seeds. . . so many flies in Tripoli. The unending killing of flies…it began to infuriate her. Amma suffered intensely, unable to find relief, unlike the others whom it didn’t seem to bother.
The flies would begin to hum beneath Amma’s skull the minute she was free from work. Acchan was alone at home. Amma wanted to fly back to Acchan, but who else did Aruna have for help? At the time of Aruna’s first confinement Amma and Acchan had come together. This time Acchan was too embroiled in problems to be able to come.
One day when she felt extremely sad and fed up with things, Amma told Aruna: ‘I want to buy a fly swam.’
‘You‘ve to go to Paris for it, mummy.’ It was five hours’ journey from there to Paris. Aruna said her husband Pramod would buy it when he went to Paris the next week.
But Amma decided she would attempt a search in the local market held once a week in that village. After helping Anna to board the school van, Amma set out…the market was just five kilometers away. Finally, she found a fly swat: the shop that sold it stocked even Chandrika soap. The price of Chandrika soap was two hundred and fifty rupees. Amma bought just the red fly swat and started back. Thinking of various things, she lost her way. She walked along the desolate road – lonely, shivering with cold, unable to find a familiar street. Finally, she braved herself to wave down a passing car. She got in, careful not to show her disquiet — mentioned just the place name. When the car finally reached a familiar road — after an eighteen kilometre-long drive — she said thank you and got out. She didn’t tell Aruna that she lost her way. It would have upset her .. ..
My mother — Janet Rosario Martin — and Vishwanath Madhavan — my father — married against much opposition. . .they travelled all over the world. Amma worked as a teacher and Acchan as a doctor to build the house in our native village. The moment you leave the road and open the gate, you find yourself in a garden full of dancing girls….these floral maidens with their yellow skirts are as graceful as the ballet dancers of Europe. You leave the dancing girls and enter the house:- a sit out, two bedrooms, a kitchen and other essential areas make up the ground floor. The dog, Amma and Acchan found abandoned on the road during one of their walks and brought home, occupies the place near the storeroom. The dining table is in the area between the stairs that lead up from the sit-out to the first floor and the kitchen. Everything else watching TV Amma teaching communicative English, is done on the first floor.
It was yesterday night that the frightening event took place. Yesterday each one of us sat in our separate spaces and were worried in the same way—Aruna in France, Anoop in South America, me in Kozhikode and of course Acchan. It was at night that Amma rang up each one of us.
Yesterday night Amma was alone at home. It’s very rarely that Amma is forced to be alone. After his retirement Acchan was there with her always. It was yesterday morning that Acchan left for Trichur on an emergency — just a day’s travel — three visits, a break al Ernakulam — he would return the next day.
At night Amma sat in the reading room upstairs and wrote two long letters. To Aruna and to Anoop.
‘ I would like to come and help you out for some time. How do you manage thev twenty four hour duty schedule with two small children, my child? For how long is this twenty-four hour duty? You must tell Pramod — that court case of Acchan’s has reached nowhere. . .we are chained to this place. It was when we came to you when Anna was born that the ex-party verdict for giving compensation was pronounced. After our return we had to struggle so hard to file an appeal! Acchan longs to see his grandson but whenever we think of coming to you, this case attaches itself to our feet like a trap…’
The pen slipped out of Amma’s grip and fell on to the paper…
It was seven years ago that that woman came to the hospital to see Acchan — anxious, not knowing what to do about the fleshy growth in her nose.
Acchan told her again and again: ‘Your husband has to give his consent for the operation.’
‘He doesn’t take care of me, saar. It’s I who work to feed the children. Then, why do I need his signature?’ Still Acchan sent her back several times, telling her to bring her husband. She came back to see my father every time…
‘Saar you should do this operation for me.’
Acchan was in a fix; then he thought — even an abandoned woman has a right to medical treatment. He decided to go ahead with her content.
’Saar, god will take care of you’ she said as she lay on the operation table. The growth was successfully removed. Not a drop of blood was wasted.
But when he came back from washing his hands Acchan saw the other doctors rushing towards her. He looked only once. That last look before she sank into death…he didn’t understand anything else. He was sure nothing went wrong during the operation. It was a terrible blow, perhaps because it was the first in twenty-five years …yet Acchan tried to find the husband that day itself..
And the man filed a case demanding lakhs of rupees as compensation.
Amma couldn’t remember when she left off writing the letter to Aruna and began the one to Anoop.
‘Are your books still lying scattered around your room? Those novels of Llosa which borrowed when I came there — I gave them to some of my better students to read. That was why I brought them along with me.’ Though retired, Amma has lots of work here. The number of students aspiring to learn English is rising by the day. Some of them want to learn to speak the language to go abroad. Some want to use it to compete better for the jobs available here. People ranging in age from 18 to -50 come asking for me. Amma has converted your room upstairs into a studio to teach them. Anoop. I feel bad when I think of you sitting before your machine among all those books… neither of us wanted you to become an engineer. These days I worry over Aruna’s life frequently. What sort of life is it, having to spend twenty-four hours looking alter the sick! Like Acchan’s. Amma gets scared just thinking about it. Look at Acchan. When he finally returned to his native land hoping to work here, to live a retired life, that patient’s death occurred…the court case followed. Acchan is exhausted. Amma’s taking good care of him. Amma won’t be able to stand another attack….
And Anoop, an important thing. I don’t mind your having a tequila once in a while but keep your room clean. Keep your books neatly. Take care of the area under and around that washbasin in the corner of the room ….’
Amma stopped writing abruptly as her hand began to tremble.
The tarantula crept into her memory.
O God ! I would have died that day I saw the Tarantula. I Wasn’t wearing
my glasses and so I saw it only as a shadowy movement beside the washbasin.
What’s this, Anoop?’ The call came out so loud.
Anoop who was standing beside the stove came running.
Amma move away, quickly!’ Anoop shoved it out with his foot. Then
‘ It was a tarantula.’
’Ouf….’ Amma’s fear came out in a deluge of sound…
A black fat tarantula!
I know tarantulas are found in South America. I’ve also seen pictures in books….and a part of The Kiss of the Tarantula on TV. It was fortunate I wasn’t wearing my glasses when I saw it near the washbasin in the villa in Barranquilla in Columbia, where my son lives. Without glasses everything appears as a shadowy form…..
Amma left off writing. Her fingers began to play with the glob on the table. If you are drill a tunnel from Thiruvananthapuram straight down you reach Barranquilla. He must be sitting before that machine as usual, books scattered all around him. As she put the letters into envelopes and wrote the addresses on them, the clock struck eleven. She walked towards the stairs to go to the bedroom downstairs.Her foot was on the top step when her body began to tremble — her throat dried up- she caught hold of the banisters with both hands to prevent herself from fainting — there was a huge spider on the middle stair. As she was wearing glasses she saw it clearly. She stood frozen to the spot not knowing what to do ….the spider too remained where it was—motionless. Amma somehow managed to go back to the room where she had been writing towards the phone—that’s all she could remember……
As each of the telephones responded shrilly to her call, her body trembled.
She first called Trichur. Acchan hadn’t reached there yet. She asked all those she called ‘What will I do now? There’s a spide here ….really, I’m totally trapped.’
Phone calls were made to France and Columbia. Anoop had personal experience of Amma’s fear of spiders. . . he uttered comforting words to calm her.
Amma got Mukundan last. She knew that his place would be Acchan’s final halt in Trichur.
‘Mukundan, what should I do? Tell doctor when he comes, there’s a huge spider inside the house. I can’t go down.’
Though a former army ofticer, Mukundan was unable to utter a single word in response.
Acchan got the news as soon as he reached Mukundan’s place. He at once called Amma — comforted her — gave her courage — finally decided to return immediately. ‘Shall I start now itself? Will the spider remain till I come?’
That last mischievous question before he replaced the receiver made Amma strong, galvanized her into action. She would defeat that spider come what may! As Amma went back to look, the spider suddenly scrambled towards the window.
The right moment.
Running down the stairs, she took some detergent from the bathroom and mixed it with water; she flung it at the window. The spider pirouetted once, then fell — curled up lifeless. That spiders could be killed with detergent solution Amma had discovered another night when she found herself facing another spider in the bathroom. Amma screamed — she poured some detergent into water and threw it at the spider. By the time Acchan sprang out of bed everything was over.. the dead spider lay on the floor. As Amma stumbled out Acchan carried her to bed.
In the relief of having vanquished the spider, Amma called me again yesterday night just before going to bed.
‘You must come tomorrow, moley. Day after tomorrow is the hearing.’ That was all she said.
Today by the time Acchan and I came, the house had regained its calm. When Acchan came, Amma was walking around with the fly swat — killing flies, giving simple instructions to the cook and assisting her in the kitchen.
Amma is now silent having narrated the whole incident while we drank tea. Suddenly she swung the fly swat hard. Seven corpses lay on the table. Amma can see flies wherever they are, she can detect spiders in the farthest corners. She removed the dead flies from the teapoy… came back and sat down once again.
I continued io stare at Amma’s face. The fly swat now lay on the table. Amma was staring out of the window, her face wilting with anxiety. . . I wondered how I could comfort her.
Translated from Malayalam by Catherine Thankamma.
Woman as wife, mother, working woman — the problems that the protagonist
confronts in the story are in no way unique: the central episode narrated with mock-solemnity is in fact ridiculously trivial — an elderly woman who has confronted obstacles or various kinds all her like, is stumped by a spider that appears on the stairs, prompting her to send panic-stricken messages to her husband and children. By juxtaposing the protagonist’s innate ability to confront and resolve problems with her fear of spiders and obsessive dislike of flies, the writer posits the narrative with a subtext endowed with suggestive richness. Retirement has brought Janet Rosario Martin no relief from stress –the unjust court order, the sense of futility that haunts her as she and her husband struggle to get the order revoked, anxiety about her husband’s health, about her children slogging in far off lands — are Lilliputian in their impact as they dovetail themselves into everyday life. The hysterical panic that grips her on seeing the innocuous spider, the crusader – like zeal with which she hunts down flies and spiders indicate the corrosive effect of these pressures that wear down the victim with the unrelieved regularity of their occurrence. In such n situation wielding a fly swat becomes a symbol of vulnerability as well as reflexive resistance and mirrors the impact of the pressures that dog contemporary life.