|On a cold noon of January, I reclined on the bed, recounting a story to the children. Beyond the thin blue curtains of the bedroom was the pale sky. Near me were the bright faces of my children. Though their cute faces invited fondling, I lay flat on my back with my arms wrapped around my chest. There was then, only the pale sky before my eyes.
I must have slept before the children did. When I woke from my dream, with a terrible thirst, the children were sleeping around me, higgledy-piggledy. I watched the fine nerves of their closed eyelids, their dribbling crimson lips that were as tender as their innocence, and their soft palms with their slight tracery of lines. Then I closed my eyes without touching the pale lonely sky that loomed above and the glass of water that I’d placed by my bed, wetting my dry lips again and again with my tongue. I dreamt of the flower vase by my bed that grew in size. The stamens of the flowers were like huge ropes. They stood, pell mell above me, my children and the whole world.
I got up without waking my children. I was cut to the quick when I saw the vacuum I had left on the white sheet when I got up. I had dreamt first of a white place, like this, which was covered with ice. In the middle of the bleak landscape, stood an ostrich like bird with very long legs and a big beak. The multihued lines between its beak and its feet seemed lovely to me against the pristine whiteness of the snow. yet the bird was a faded grey in colour, apart from its legs. The grey reminded me of the frozen greyness of our maid who had hanged herself on the rafters of the kitchen, when she found herself pregnant with my brother’s baby.
The bird moved slowly through the snow dragging its feet that sank into the ice drifts. It moved in a fixed direction, along a narrow path. The bird with eyes like smouldering coals seemed to search for something. The vast expanse of ice stretched without an end in sight. I knew, somehow, that the bird was trying to reach beyond the ice. I knew too that the bird was thirsty.
The speed of its walk slowed. At last, a little water in a soot blackened aluminium vessel appeared on top of the ice. The vessel was pivoting like a mill-stone.
The soot of the vessel did not seep into the ice. The bird tried hard to drink from the vessel, bending its long legs and bringing its beak as close as possible to the vessel. Its legs refused to bend. Quite suddenly, the bird saw me. The bird had my face. As soon as it saw me, it tried to laugh. Yet it was laughter without a sound. I saw its teeth that looked like droplets of blood. The vessel that was turning swiftly, stopped abruptly, apparently, on hearing the laughter. There was not a drop of water in the vessel then.
I unhooked my dress and switched on the fan. Beyond the window, widows in white dresses were sunning themselves. I was reminded of the pyre when I saw their old wrinkled faces marked by disappointment and the dry twigs that fed the bonfire. I felt that they could all be burnt in a moderate fire.
I swiftly rang the bell on the table. I loved the pleasant sound it made. I felt that it was a sound very like the laughter of the slender girl who came to sell crude whittled flutes. Yet I have never heard her laugh.
I told the maid who hurried to me on hearing the bell: “I am going out. I may be late getting back.”
It was only after I left my home that I thought about where I wanted to go. I always suffer from this doubt whenever I go out.
Looking at the faces of the people coming towards me, I began walking. The cool wind blew over my ears and neck. I imagined myself walking over the ice. That didn’t work at all for I had never in real life seen a place covered with ice and snow.
As I was unused to walking, my feet began to hurt. My friend Susheela lived in a big house on the side of the road. Her husband had left her when she contacted bilious dropsy and white patches appeared on her once flawless skin. But I didn’t visit her. I got out of the elevator at the seventh floor, before it reached the thirteenth, where Susheela lived. Then I went down to the ground floor in the elevator used by the servants. I saw, without having to turn my head, the unobtrusive and retreating glances of the servants. I longed to tell them of Susheela Memsaheb – she of the big kumkum bindi that shone in the white patches of bilious dropsy on her forehead and who watched the distant sea, leaning on her window. They would stare at first. Then, slowly, their eyes would fill with tears.
The lift reached the ground floor. Holding the door open, the old retainer stood aside. I thought of the bird on the ice when I saw the old wrinkled skin on the back of his hand. I was finding it increasingly difficult to carry the bird on the snow, alone. Who could I share it with? I would have told Muralidharan, if he were here. I knew at once that would be right. To share the tale of the bird on the snow with Muralidharan on such a cold afternoon! He would be able to understand why the bird’s beak and feet were grey. Perhaps he might even ask, before I tell him, whether the aluminium vessel was turning round and round.
It was for people like Muralidharan that there were the frosty afternoon, the small black birds that soared around without seeming to move their wings at all and the shiny pink hued clouds of the mornings.
It was when I sat in the warm darkness of the side room in my tharavad on a holiday, that I heard of Murali’s death. I overheard his mother who wept and recounted the tale to my mother when she came to visit her. There were many women in the yard who had come to thresh the hay and my mother was watching them. Murali’s mother’s eyes were as cold and empty as this noon. Perhaps the eyes of all who loved would be like this.
When I heard the din of the passers-by, I jostled them to see better. On these occasions, I always feel like pushing through them to declare: ‘See, what are your problems? I’ll solve them all. If we are all united, what problems can remain? Then let us walk through, the cool afternoon, immersed in talk.’ But when I begin to think about this, my throat would go dry. Then I could do absolutely nothing at all. I would then reserve all these thoughts to dream about at night.
As I looked on, two policemen came to disperse the crowd. They carried in their arms the inert body of a young man whose face was bathed in blood. They also forced the other man into the front seat of the car. There were bloodstains on his shirt.
I walked back swiftly. My home was far away. In my snow dreamscape, I could locate my home from everywhere. Now it is not so. I checked for bloodstains on my face and on my clothes and sat in the taxi I hailed.
For a minute I lingered before the locked door of my house. Perhaps the servant had taken the children to the park. I took the spare key out of my handbag to unlock the door. The transistor on the table played music. I did not switch it off but took the cool water from the fridge to wash my face over and over again.
I remembered Murali who was frightened when he saw the water. I wished Murali were not dead. I tried to speak to myself.
Quite suddenly, I heard the sound of the children’s chatter. They were returning. I heard the Ayah who opened the door tell the children: ‘I think your mother has not returned.’
I hid in the dark behind the door that led to the balcony. The children ran through the house searching for me. ‘Where has mother gone?’ they asked. ‘She has usually returned before it’s as late as this…’
My cheek had brushed against the curtain plant in the dark. I stood quite still. The leaves were chilled. I remembered Unniettan, who tried to hug me in the temple of the tharavad. My eyes began, slowly, to fill with tears. The crash of the plate that fell off the dining table at which my children were at supper, shattered in my mind. It broke off my inclination to tears. I stood on the balcony until the maid put the children to bed and placed the supper for my husband and myself on the dining table.
The sound the children made, grew fainter. When the maid retreated to sleep after putting on the dim light, I walked towards the children’s bed room. It was only then that I remembered the flowers I had bought for them. I carried the flowers to them. All three of them were asleep. The ayah had covered them with a big white quilt. I arranged the flowers on a big glass. Then I placed it on a stool near their feet. I thought they could look at it first thing in the morning. But I was struck dumb by the blue tinged bedroom lamp and the white quilt. I felt as if I had placed a wreath on the dead bodies of my children. I quickly took the vase of flowers to a corner of the room and pulled off the white quilt under which my children huddled. I covered them with a quilt that was multihued like the neck feathers of the bird.
It was at this juncture that my husband arrived. I heard the ayah open the door and tell him that the memsahib had gone out and had not returned. I had decided to greet my husband at the door and ask him if he felt tired. But I couldn’t summon up energy for that. When I heard my husband at the shower, I remembered the taxi that drove away with the young man whose face was covered with blood.
Telling the ayah that he didn’t want any supper, my husband came to the children’s room. I quickly slid in the darkness under their cot.
‘This is a game,’ I told myself.
My husband sat on the children’s cot. He stroked their forheads and kissed them. They didn’t know it for they were fast asleep.
I saw my husband go slowly to his room. I didn’t feel like stirring. I heard my husband pace the room next door, endlessly, as if he were searching for someone. As I listened to the restless pacing, my mind flooded with images of Muralidharan, my husband, my cousin, Unniettan and finally – the bird in the snow. I would go to my husband’s room, wake him up and tell him all about the bird in the snow, I resolved. I must have slept. When I awoke, I was lying on the children’s bed. ‘Where were you?’ My husband asked when he emerged from the bathroom. I started up, intending to talk about the bird in the snow. But I thought better of it, for I was beginning to forget it. Yesterday I had another dream. I could tell him about that, if I wanted to…
Translated from Malayalam by Hema Nair. R
MANASI. is one of the most notable of Malayalam women short story writers. She has brought out many collections including Idivalinte Thengal (The Sobs of Lightning) Velichathinte Thalam (The Rhythm of the Light) and Manjile Pakshi (The Bird in the Snow) which won the Kerala Sahithya Akademi award. A collection, Manasiyude Kathakal (The Tales of Manasi) was brought out by DC Books in 1998.
What is special about Manasi’s stories is the fact that it is rooted in the dark recesses of the female psyche that is rarely recounted by other women writers. These are emotions that have remained unvoiced through the centuries. A strong de mythifying streak runs through tales like ‘The Goddesses of Arshabharata’ that features in the collection The Southern Harvest and in “Sheelavathy” that features in the collection Manjile Pakshi. These tales address the need to destroy the male deification of the woman – to pull down the goddess from the pedestal in order to address the problems of the flesh and blood woman. In attempting to trace the process, of deification (in ‘Devi Mahatmyam’ translated as ‘The Goddesses of Arshabharatam’) and in drawing parallels between the wife and the courtesan (in “Sheelavathy”) Manasi breaks the cocoon that wraps the woman, to release the chrysalis.
The pressure on the woman to conform can only be broken at great physical and mental costs. The female protagonists of Manasi often suffer mental trauma that is untreated – neither recognized nor soothed by the husband or the other characters in the tales. If in ‘Rajakumariyude Vaalu’ (The Sword of the Princess) the protagonist retreats into psychosis without a promise of return, the protagonist of ‘Manjile Pakshi’ (The Bird in the Snow) stages a return – a come back. At no stage does she sink into psychosis though ‘withdrawal’ is apparent.
It is the way that Manasi treats withdrawal that is enthralling. Withdrawal, in Manasi’s tale is not a method of escape but a way towards self realization. Living within a socially imposed identity, the female protagonist feels alienated both emotionally and socially. In her excursion outdoors, the unnamed protagonist talks of Susheela, her friend, who lives as a social outcaste both because her husband has left her and because she suffers from skin discolouration. In the image of Susheela at the window, holding on to the bars while she looked out at life teeming by, there is a reflection of the protagonist herself.
Doubling and repetition are the favourite narrative devices of Manasi. The cold and thirsty bird in the snow, trapped in the bleak frost, is the protagonist herself for it has her face. The thirst of the bird/the protagonist is likened to the unquenched and unquenchable thirst of Muralidharan who died of the rabies – longing for, yet unable to drink water. If Muralidharan’s mother’s eyes were as bleak and empty as the drearily cold winter afternoons, the widows in white dresses were like the dry twigs that fed the pyre-like bonfire. Images of death are woven into the texture of the narrative. The blood soaked young man was driven away in the taxi – a sound that the shower the husband ran, echoed. The leaves of the curtain plant that brushed against the protagonist’s cheek echoed the coldness that swamped her when her cousin tried to pull her in his arms in the sacred precincts of the temple. The dreamscape is at odds with the urban landscape the protagonist finds herself in, but the chill of ice is evident in the white sheets and the quilt that she replaces with a coloured one. Even the disorderliness of the children at sleep is echoed by that of the stamen of flowers in the dream. Visual, auditory and sensory images abound in the tale.
The journey of the protagonist encompasses both the very real outing that she has and the deeper inner voyage of realization that she undertakes. She both understands the wasteland that she is locked in and is resolved to break out of it- something that is reflected in her desire to tell her husband of the new dream that she had. The spiritual wasteland is already behind her.
The short story attempts to capture the essence of three similar longer tales on withdrawal. Doris Lessing’s The Summer before the Dark, Anita Desai’s Where shall we go this summer? and Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle. All three novels deal with the withdrawal device but Lessing’s work is perhaps closer to Manasi’s tale in the centrality of the dream sequence.
HEMA NAIR R. Is Associate Editor, Samyukta. Teaches at the N.S.S. College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Doris Lessing. Has published widely in research journals. Is an experienced translator.
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