The experience of love that I’m going to describe is the strangest. So here’s an advance warning: chaste wives (in the satisavitri mould) and strictly monogamous men (in the maryaadaapurushottam mould) are advised against reading this account. I will not be responsible for whatever breaches of morality that may result from reading it. This thing called ‘chastity’; it’s so desecrated, these days. The days of flawless devotion to husbands do not dawn anymore. What smutty things wives do these days, through email, the cell phone, and the land phone, when their husbands aren’t around the house! The Sreeramachandras, the ones who knew no other doe-eyed damsel, and the Jewels of Feminine Virtue, alas, have all disappeared, root, branch and all, from the face of this earth. I too, am quite saddened by all this. I’m sincerely fired by the desire to write stories that salute the few well-born homely women of virtue (so rare are they – so scarce that they have to counted on fingers!) who walk with assured gait and firm step upon the tightrope of morality, even as this world is going all topsy-turvy! But then, fiction isn’t life, ah, a fact that renders one so powerless! A life – that’s easier to end as we please. Not even a mangy dog would be curious about its denouement.But when it comes to a story, the game is entirely different. The story’s movement upon paper is like a serpent’s movement upon a rock. An unpredictable slithering. If it goes wrong, that’s it. Readers will pull out daggers. And every other wayfaring Marykutty will step in, to perform a critique. So then, what for, all that mess? For that reason, there’s no story on offer. In its place, a bit of life, a burning sliver of experience.
This is experience, and must therefore be honest. Wherever honesty thrives, morality must decline. So, before proceeding any further – caution! There’s still time. This page can be slammed shut right here. Or it can be turned. It’s the readers’ responsibility to hold tight to their chastity and peace of mind so that these don’t fall in a heap on the floor. Reading ahead may adversely affect children, pregnant women, heart patients, and my husband: they are advised against venturing any further.
Only the firm-hearted are advised to proceed.
I’ve already told you. A sliver of experience – of love. That too, a burning speck. I loved him. The name will remain a secret. If it doesn’t remain a secret, my husband will leave me. My children will grow up suffering their stepmother’s taunts. Friends and relatives will hate me. My husband may even finish me off with poison. I’m not worried about all this. Death doesn’t look like a problem to me. If this life ends, the next one will begin. That’s all to it. But no, not when I remember him. A terrible weakness overpowers me then. He, poor soul, someone who’s suffered much pain in this birth, and perhaps in former births too. Someone upon whom life weighed so heavy that he became a hermit. Should I drag such a man into this world? Should I throw him to the sharks? No. Therefore, be so kind as to forgive me. After all, what’s in a name?
Let me tell you of our love. Make no mistake; this is not my first love. I have been in love always. Before getting married and after. My love is a languid serpent, an utterly venomous one. For a long time it lay coiled and still, lounged upon its own body, biding its time, lying in wait. For someone. Who, one didn’t know. Someone. Who wouldn’t die of my fang. Who was a deep blue by birth. The three-eyed one. Never saw him. Ever. Those who I met, they were all false Vasudevas. Ones whose bluish tinge vanished under a tight kiss. Each time it was a mistake I made. I moulted; I left behind each of them. To those who tried to hold fast, I gave my decaying old scaly skin. No one saw me, no one touched. They measured the length and breadth of the skin and heaved huge sighs of relief – what a huge poisonous snake, how lucky that it slid away – they were consoled. The silver spots upon my lucent skins glistened in the daylight as they lay in the backyards of their lives.
Let that be. I will speak about us. We met very late. He’d become a hermit by then. And I, married, and a mother of two. People who have walked too far ahead in opposing paths. We’d have to walk back, start together all over again. If that’s possible, that is. But that isn’t possible. If that was, human beings would have tried. What distance would they not walk back, if that was possible?
I will speak of how we found each other. The partitioning of the family property brought me some money. I insisted to my husband that we buy an old naalukettu house. One like the house I was born and raised in. A house with doors so low that one can enter only with head bowed, with a ceiling so low that it can be touched with a raised hand. My house was like that – a cool, breezy house. The wind from the river used to rush in through the south window and whirled around, flustered at not finding the way out. That house doesn’t exist anymore. It was wiped out by lightning. As the flames leapt up from one side, my mother, sisters, and me, we picked up all that we could and ran out. That was the month of the November rains. It was raining so hard, a drop would have filled a pot. But the house didn’t stop burning. It fought against the downpour and went down blazing, reduced to ashes. My father burned to death inside. The place where it stood became void. In my father’s place was another void, a greater one.
I had wanted a house like that one. We advertised in the newspapers many times. Several sellers wrote back to us. We would go to see each house on offer.
“Why not buy this one?”
Each time, my husband would be enthused. “No…”
I replied, each time. “This isn’t what I have in my mind…”
“That’s going to be only in your mind.”
His tone turned accusing after a while. “It’s only a fantasy.”
That house is real; it stands somewhere. I knew that. The same house that I have in my mind. The one with the serpent-grove on its south side and the kili-tree on its east, upon which lush tangles of wild jasmine thrived. Where the sleepy murmur of the birds and the desiring sighs of the snakes entered if the south-side window was opened at night. Funny, but I also knew that he’d be there, too. Yes, I knew all that well before. All of it. He’s the one who didn’t know. Poor man. He lived in the lightness of his ignorance, detached. All alone, in that naalukettu house, with its many windows. I sought him there to quote a price, but he didn’t recognise me.
We had gone to those parts to look at another house. I didn’t like that one. So on the way back, the broker suggested, “There’s another house nearby… You may have liked it, Madam… but the owner is a hermit… what a pity, he won’t sell.”
“Let’s go over,” I insisted, “Maybe the hermit will indeed sell?”
So at last my husband decided to make a try. He turned into the road pointed to us by the broker. The car stopped in front of the tile- roofed gateway. A thrill ran through my pores at the very first sight. This is the house I knew. The tile-roofed gateway built of sandstone blocks. The curving doorway. The rough, gravelly village road. Paddy fields opening out on the other side. The water-channel running by the road in which tiny fish swam.
From the fields rose the clay-scented breeze. There must be a path north of the yard, I mused, and that must lead up to the river. A kaitha– bush must be growing in the river, one that tumbled onto the river-bank in riotous abandon. There must be waterfowls that tiptoed out when no one was around. The kaitha must be in full bloom now. I could catch its scent, though the bushes hadn’t bloomed yet. My nerves tingled.
We entered the gateway. The garden was full of trees and cool languor. Dusk was falling. The greenish dark hovered about. Birds cooed, hurrying to roost. In the dim light I saw him sitting on a floor-mat in the distant veranda. There was a harmonium in front, and some ten little children. It was a music-class. He turned towards us, his left hand still on the harmonium. My husband and the broker went up to the veranda to speak with him. I didn’t go. I stood inside the gateway, near the kili– tree upon which the wild jasmine grew. The jasmine burst into bloom, as if from a sudden thrill. A forest-caller flew up suddenly, calling aloud and long, its bright tail feathers flashing.
He got up. He was clad in an ochre dhoti; an ochre towel covered his shoulders. His beard reached his chest; a long mane of hair fell to his shoulders. I didn’t look at his face. The blood in my body raced through its tiny rivulets. I stepped out of the gateway hurriedly. In the car, I sat in front, panting. Nearly weeping. A terrible bitterness was sweeping within.
My husband and the broker returned.
“The hermit’s not selling. He’s given it away to some ashram…”
I stayed quiet. My husband had liked him, he said so. He’s a scholar, a gentleman, well-off. But an ascetic. How radiant is his face! What deep calm, in his voice! No ordinary ascetic, this.
“Let’s go”, I said, sickened.
“I have a headache.”
My husband started the car. I closed my eyes tight. The pain was real. But it wasn’t in my head. It throbbed in my chest and loins. Piercing pain. Not pain, really. Piercing, stabbing, desire. Desire smouldering, like specks of flame eating slowly, slowly, into raw flesh. I want to bear a child in my womb. I want to give birth. To a son. His son. I meditated. His face. His form. What would he look like? How would he be? The hermit’s sperm; the slut’s ovum. Renunciation and desire, in equal measure.
—- You’ve got it, I suppose? I’m terribly decadent.
The unmarried have keener eyesight. Once you’re married, it diminishes. When he was my lover, my husband wrote four or five whole essays about a small birthmark I have on the little finger of my right hand. That trivial birthmark was indeed an exalted one! Subject too much unnecessary coddling, it turned into a Movement. But the moment the thali – the marriage-pendant – was noosed around my neck, it reverted into being a humble birthmark. He never saw it again.
I’ve already told you. Marriage weakens the eyesight. He forgot the birthmark, the flowery words he’d uttered about it, and our romance itself. Marriage weakens the memory, too.
It’s thirteen years now since we got married. You can imagine the state of his eyesight. He’s short-sighted. Never saw my face or its expressions. I was uneasy, like a snake stifling inside a wicker basket. The music of the makuti came to me, loud and clear. I have to escape. I need to slither out there, to the place from where the sound rose. But, how? I squirmed, uneasy within the four walls of the house. I scolded both my daughters; accused them of lacking discipline; reminded them that chastity was their greatest wealth. Then I shut myself in my bedroom and tossed about in my bed.
I wanted to see him. But how? There was a day’s gap between us. The distance of a long journey. He’s not selling the house. It’s being given away to some ashram. What excuse could I possible forge to go over? Clouds of smoke smothered my brain.
“What are you thinking about?” My husband asked. “That was a lovely house.”
“Oh, so you haven’t forgotten it?”
I shut my eyes tightly. No. Not yet. How could that be? Exuberant wild jasmine sprang into sight whenever I shut my eyes. I see the veranda. A luxuriant crown of tangled hair.
“The ascetic won’t sell it. And even if he does, let’s not buy it. He’s the last heir; no child has been born in that house since him…”
My eyes opened. My womb throbbed.
“Let’s go there once more, let’s try again…”
“Don’t I have anything better to do?” He was angry. I slid closer to him on the bed and wrapped my arms around him.
“You are too much. Enough!”
“If he isn’t selling, let it be. Let’s just go and see the house… We could build one like it…”
He agreed. He will agree, I knew. There was no other way. Because this is not fiction. This is life. What one writes after experience – that’s fiction. Experiencing what’s written – that’s life. That’s the inconvenience of life. And the freedom of fiction.
Let that be. He came with me. We went there again. The same house. The tile-roofed gateway, the kili tree, the wild jasmine. A hundred flowers with no one to pluck. Another world inside the gateway. The retreating sunlight outside. The languid dusk, inside. Outside, the clamour of folk returning from the market. Inside, the silence of roosting birds.
He walked in front. I went behind him, slowly. In the courtyard, holy basil, as tall as a man. On the half-wall, delicate white mandaaram flowers, plucked. The parijatham bloomed in the front yard. Their fragrance borne up by the breeze. My heart beat hard. My stomach burned as if from terrible hunger.
He pressed a finger on the doorbell. He came. A huge man. Ochre dhoti, ochre towel, sacred ashes smeared on the forehead and chest. The long hair, the long beard, silver starting to streak it.
He smiled. My husband folded his hands, saluting. “Come… do take a seat…”
He invited us in.
“You remember me, I hope?”
My husband asked.
I gazed intently at him. Nothing new to the eye. This wooden house. Him. The luminous smile. The meditative eyes. The shoulder covered with fine hair, under the ochre towel. The stooping posture – he was too tall. All this, I’ve known, since long.
“You aren’t selling the house, isn’t it so?” My husband asked. He smiled again. “My wife liked this house a lot. Could we see the interiors?”
“Why not? Do come in.”
He pointed to the way inside. “Most of it is shut up. It’s swept only once or twice a month, so there’ll be a lot of dust.”
My husband tripped on one of the wooden stairs. “Be careful,” he said, “the house is really old. Don’t hit your head.”
I ignored the comment haughtily. Don’t you teach me. I know. After the sitting room comes the central room. Step into the veranda of the central-room, and you reach the central courtyard. The platform in the middle on which the sacred basil grew. In the rain, the tinkling of rainwater upon the bronze metal-leaf on the roof-edge. I know. I’ve known.
My husband asked him something about the carvings on the wooden door. He turned to respond. I walked ahead, not needing a guide. The northern door beyond the kitchen and the centre-room where the mortar and pestle are kept. I placed a hand on the bolt. He suddenly inclined his head, looking at me.
“That won’t open, it can’t be opened.” He came closer.
“I want to see the river,” I said.
Then he looked at me closer. A second. I too saw in his eyes the female form clad in a shining sari of green silk, with her hair coiled behind. That was it. He turned his gaze.
“Go around through the front door…that’s easier.” He said. I felt annoyed, suddenly, as if I were made small! He wasn’t even trying to open the door. I put my hand on the door and tried to loosen the bolt, hitting the wooden planks with my elbow.
“Don’t open it. It can’t be closed again if you do.” He tried to stop me.
But before he could finish, how wonderful, the bolt loosened. The door opened. He looked a bit startled. And then, back to his detachment, smiled.
“Oh… so it opened?”
“It did…” I stood there, triumphant.
“It’s been years. The bottom must have decayed…”
I did not reply; I stepped out into the yard. Darkness, amidst the dense foliage of kilichundan mango trees. Beyond that, another tree, the poovarasu; beyond that, the bramble-fence, and then the river. The kaitha bushes stood at the edge of land. They were in bloom. The river-breeze wafted by, delicate and fragrant as a flower. I became free as if all my bonds had been loosened. Where is the serpent grove? Where is the Njaaval tree?
I reached the sacred grove, a verdant umbrella opened to the sky. Mildly swaying vines glided down from the Naagadanti. I wanted to get in creeping below its branches. How cool it is! The wet leaves. The moist soil. How would it feel to lie on the ground, on the bare ground? The grasshoppers would leap up from the greenery below. Onto my head, first. Then onto my forehead. And then onto my breasts. A little snake may hatch, pressing upon the warmth of my belly. A dark-skinned one. I tried to imagine his face. His mellow double-tongue. Pretty little milk- teeth. It happened that very moment. You won’t believe it when I tell you. I can’t believe it either. That’s the difference between fiction and life. Life, that’s fiction written at some unknown time. That moment, I was bitten by a snake. On the left leg, exactly where I used to wear an anklet as a child. I think it was a cobra. I didn’t see. Two little teeth had sunken in. That’s all that happened. I stood where I was. But broke into heavy sweat, as if I’d run a long way. The bite mark felt as if an oil-wick had been lighted on it. It singed. I was in flames even as the sweat was streaming.
Quite like how my house had blazed, in the rain.
Later, I realised. All love needs a go-between. The beloved’s medium, that which reveals her heart to her lover. The snake was revealing my message.
I was on his veranda when I came to. Before my open eyes was his face, close. The fathoms of his eyes, the rising outline of his nose. The ascetic detachment. The sage-like calm. He was tying a tourniquet above the bite mark. Then face lowered on to the wound, he sucked the blood and spat it out. I was in pain and I rejoiced in it. I saw everything as if through a prism. The ascetic’s face at my feet. My blood on his lips. A strange sight. Strange indeed. I told you, love is like that. Strange, from top to toe. Astonishingly so.
My husband called me, worried.
“She’s opened her eyes… now there’s nothing to fear…” He said. “The venom hasn’t moved up her body. That was fortunate… take her to the doctor quickly…”
He gave the keys of the north gate to my husband to get the car into the front yard. My husband went off. I woke fully from my stupor. Lay there, watching him wash off my blood from his mouth, pour water on his face, sprinkle it on his head, as if to purify himself. The cool breeze wafted in bearing the rich redolence of wild jasmine and the King of Fragrance, the gandharajan. He stood with his eyes on the garden path. I looked at him intently. He was magnetic. His face was radiant. What did he feel when he pressed his lips on my wound? What taste did my blood evoke upon his tongue? I ached badly, from head to toe. My heart screamed. I grunted. He turned and looked at me with merciful eyes.
“Yes, what is it?” I moved my lips. “Water?”
I stretched out my hand.
He picked up the water-jar and came near. I was lying on the floor. He sat down next to me, knees folded as if in a funeral rite. Light lay strewn within those eyes. Eyes rapt in contemplation. Eyes that did not look at me. I’ve warned you early on. I’m shameless. The mother of two girls. The wife of a forty-year old man. Impossibly bold. Immeasurably assertive. I was in a hurry. My husband could return any minute. My arms curved around his neck. My teeth sunk into his lips on his face pulled down towards me. Two of my best venom-teeth. Believe it or not, he turned completely blue.
The many lives I have traversed, shedding many outer skins. I crawled on. From one to another. Over prickly cacti, rough boulders. Above mountains and trees. Over wet fallen leaves, wilted flowers. One life at a time. In each, he. He, of the same colour. The deepest blue.
While resting after the snake-bite cure, I thought of it, amused. Two beings who wandered searching for the other. Who finally met, but did not recognise. The secrets of life are strange. I remembered him whenever my husband and children appeared. His eyes. His eyes, deep enough for me to dip into and rise again.
“Why did you have to go there at that time, my dear?”
Whenever he was free, my husband would sit beside me, stroking my forehead. I held fast to his hands.
“Did I bother you?”
“It’s not the bother… it hurts to see you like this, so weak…” He was sympathetic.
“Anyway let’s not think of buying a house again… Let’s give it up. If we put the money into the bank, there’ll be peace of mind at least…”
I didn’t reply. Why did I need a house anymore? I didn’t seek the house, I sought the owner. Selling or buying a house isn’t an issue anymore! There was just one issue: he. The distance between us. The distance of years, ages. How am I to take him back? Each time I shut my eyes, his face appeared – the face in which the bluish tinge keeps spreading, slowly, slowly. Right before me, close enough to touch. I stretched my hands out to the atmosphere and touched him again and again. True. And strange.
I looked at myself closely in the mirror. What does it show? A female form. A woman who has lived some three decades and a half. My mother bore me in her womb, gave birth to me, nursed me at her breast. I crawled on my knees; sat up; stood up; walked; ate; slept; grew; reproduced. And now I draw close to old age and death.
My form made me laugh. Who is this? A woman, with her hair tied up or down; clad in a sari or a mundu; lining her eyes with kohl, and touching herself up with face powder. A woman who sautéed cabbage- thoran for lunch; who brushed perfume on her husband’s handkerchiefs and neatly folded them; who combed out the lice from the girls’ hair, nicely braiding them; who never failed to give her husband his daily dose of anti-blood pressure drugs on time. What is this woman? Why was she born? Why did she live? This forty-year-old man with his slightly
greying hair and these ten and twelve year-old girls, who are they to her? She herself, who is she, really?
Who am I? What am I? Questions vexed me. So, at the first opportunity, I saw him again, without my husband’s knowledge. I went there alone. As usual, it was evening when I reached the house. The languorous dusk. The sky stretched above, bluish, as if consumed by venom.
He was preparing for the evening worship. I entered through the open front door without waiting for permission.
He started, seeing me. The memory of the bite still stung. Inside was a large image of the Goddess Tripurasundari, almost as tall as a human being. The Goddess sat atop a roaring lion, bedecked, bejewelled. A garland of white mandaram flowers hung around her neck. The ceremonial dish was full of camphor cubes. The lamps were filled with oil and decked with oil wicks.
He got up slowly. He looked all the more imposing. All the more powerful. Someone beyond the reach of simple touch.
“Come…” He called.
He sat on the sofa in the sitting room. His hand hit the veena kept on the teapoy next to the sofa. It emitted an awesome sound. I was amused. This is someone would not be defeated.
“Take a seat… Did you come alone?” “Yes…”
I sat down on the sofa opposite him. I kept looking at him. He never looked at me. Like dried-up leaves, the seconds flew between us.
“This house is not for sale…” He said that quickly.
I laughed. He suddenly looked straight into my eyes, unwaveringly.
“Do you think you are rich enough to quote a price for this house?” I laughed out aloud.
“Tell me the truth, what is in your mind? Why have you come here again?”
What a thing to ask. Why have I come, indeed? I felt dispirited. Well, is there any man in this world who doesn’t disappoint? Ask how I came, I whispered in my mind. It took a lot of trouble. A lot of lies. Many obstacles had to be overcome. Many concessions had to be given; many compromises had to be made. Just think of it. That moment. That house. That desolation. That dusk. The two of us. Two beings who had wearied in their search for each other, across many lives. The moment in which we came face to face. Intense, ardent, volatile. But what happened, really? He did not remember a thing. Did not recognise anything. I alone knew. He ought to have been the one to know. He should have come in search of me. He should have removed my outer skins; he should have received my venom in his palms. But what did he do? He ran away to Tripurasundari. He worshipped her, adored her. Devoted his whole life to her. And me? I sought him through many lives. Like a serpent which had lost the gem it guarded, I lurched and staggered. Well, is there a woman in this world who has been loved fairly?
I tried to say something. The words, I don’t remember. Surely, they were about love. And about this life. He spoke about asceticism. He warned me about the soul, about sacred vows. I challenged him; ridiculed him, asking, where does asceticism lie, in body or soul? I don’t know what he made of that. He may or may not have understood, but I kissed him forcibly. It was easier to open the old wooden door! But even that opened, in the end. I challenged him again to be beyond the body. He accepted it and kissed me. To speak of his kiss, well – it wasn’t spectacular. I forgave him for that. Men should kiss with their souls, not with their lips. I had taught him that, in each of our lives. Poor thing, he forgot all of it. I must remind him again. I will make the ascetic stay beyond his body. I’ll make him a bare soul. I broke into laughter as I held him. No change at all. Aeons have passed, life after life has withered and drooped, but nothing has changed. His hands, his neck, his chest. It’s the same as before.
I’ve already told you. This love story is a strange one. I was seeking him madly. And finally I found him. But he didn’t remember me. How was I to remind him? I had no finger-ring to rouse the memory, no jewel, no gift retained from our past, that could remind him. I had only my desire for him; my ancient memory of him. Would that be enough to rouse the ascetic from his trance? And that too, this man. This powerful, undefeated man. He who reduced the God of Love to a pile of ashes. It is not easy to lead a man into physical love. Especially this one, who was Tripurasundari’s slave. But, I’ve told you, he is my other half; he has only half my strength. I led him as far as the bedroom; as far as nakedness.
“Thirty years… thirty years since the vows…” he panted. That was just before our bodies were to join. The very moment he’d gone beyond his body. The moment in which I awaited his embrace, upon the wooden cot. A moment in which but a finger’s distance separated us. One single moment.
He woke up, suddenly. “No…”
He said, decisively.
“I can’t do it… the Devi’s image in my mind…”
He dressed without looking at me and went out. That moment. Just think. The dusk before the November rain fell. The sky smitten by venom. A cage with wooden walls. A woman lies waiting, all her outer skins discarded. For him. For his touch, his tenderness. His surrender. I lay there, sapped, like a snake with a broken spine. The darkness built its lair around me. A fruitless life.
The wind blew hard. The leaves of the money-vine clinging to the mango-tree fluttered feebly in the garden.
The rain must have come and gone; the fireflies must have flitted about; the midnight bird must have trilled aloud. I did not know.
At dawn, I dressed and returned to my husband and children.
I’ve told you. This love is not only strange, but also painful. Anyway, what is love without pain? It must ache as if your bosom has been cleaved apart. The gnawing pain from jealousy’s sharp-toothed saw. The scorching pain of the embers of loss. I will tear out my wings and fly to him. The blood will flow from my torn wings. His white mandaram blossoms will turn red from my blood. I will defeat him with blood and pain.
I was jealous of Tripurasundari. She stole my man. He’s mesmerised by her image. He calls her by her thousand names, yet his mind is not full. She is but a feeling. Nothing but his imagination. When I remembered that I burned. Frustration fuelled rage; rage fuelled revenge. My feet ached when I walked; my fingers ached when I ate my food. Every pore of my body ached. He is mine. His soft fingers, his immaculate feet, his radiant eyes. I own all of this, I alone. I have no knowledge of black magic. If I had, I would have turned him into a bird and locked him in a cage. I would have made him into a nail, hammered deep into my forehead. I would have turned him into an embryo carried in my womb. I would not have left him to worship any Tripurasundari; I would have distilled him into a terrible poison and died, drinking it.
I wrote to him: I dream of your death. One night I will arrive at your house with a sharp dagger. I will plunge it right into your heart, as you sleep peacefully. I will drink your blood. I will eat your liver raw. That way I will blend you, burn you, into my blood and flesh.
His reply, written in an impeccable hand, arrived in a few days.
“I am anguished, too. Would like to see you.”
I set off immediately. Don’t remember all the lies I told my husband. I’ve been open with you. I don’t care for honesty when love, and this ascetic, are involved. I’ll betray everyone – my children, my husband, my family, you, this whole world… I’ll be cruelly disloyal.
Just as I was setting out, my younger daughter cried for something. I paid no heed. My older daughter fretted. That too escaped my attention. My husband looked gloomy. I didn’t bother about that. I’m helpless. I cannot but go. All these folk, they are the business of this birth alone. He isn’t like that. He’s the ceaseless flow that links births past and forthcoming. My tap root.
I reached his house by evening. That was a full-moon night. The dusk lay tranquil, silent. The moonlight fell upon his garden. Flowers were bursting into bloom all around, white-clad and scented.
He had lit an oil-lamp on the veranda and was reading something in its light. I pushed open the tile-roofed door. He looked up, anxious, hearing it creak. He saw me and set his reading aside. He stood up, leaning on the wall. He stood there gazing at me, arms behind his head.
That night I bathed in the river. He stood on guard on the bank, with a lantern lit. The river was clear and cool. I swam, merrily thrashing the waters. He picked the kaitha blooms for me. I lined my eyes with kohl, for him. I braided my tresses. We walked through the fields upon which the moonlight lay scattered. We sat on the path, in the middle of the fields, our legs in the water. The moon shone bright upon the tangled tresses of the sky. The frogs croaked aloud. The green ones, memories from our past births. We listened carefully, silent. My insides and outsides hurt awfully. The pain burned hard. My legs gave way when I walked. He held me.
Then we lit lamps in the serpent grove. We sat brushing each other beneath the Njaaval tree, looking at the lit lamps, at the swaying vines, at the birds drifting into slumber. Njaaval fruit fell like rain in the breeze. Then we talked.
He talked of his childhood. About his deceased parents, friends, romance in college, the early rigours of the ascetic life. I told him of my house. About my south-facing window, my river, my room, the breeze I trapped in it, of how I danced to the breeze clad in my silken skirt, the one with the golden brocade-border. I kept eating the Njaaval berries. My lips turned a dusky blue. He lifted my face to the moonlight. He kissed me. His lips turned dusky blue too.
The moonlight, the Njaaval tree, the wet withered leaves. The terrible pain. The pain of desire. This is the most painful part of this love. The touch-me-not clumps on the ground. Thorns fallen off a thorny tree. The sharp stones. The harder we embraced, the harder it ached. The Njaaval berries were bruised crushed. Their juice smeared my wound; it ached again.
“I remember now,” He said… “For some time we were both bluebirds. You wore a yellow spot on your beak.”
“And afterwards, for a long while we were fish. You had red spots on your tail…” I said.
“Weren’t we sandal trees once? Did not my roots reach out into yours under the soil?”
“After that we were stars…” “And what are we now?”
He was sad.
Snakes, I consoled him. Snakes whose mouths and tongues had turned dusky blue from Njaaval berries. We looked at each other vengefully. We hissed aloud. Fought with our venomous fangs. We struck each other with our tails and heads.
At dawn, beneath the tree, the Njaaval berries lay crushed. Both of us turned deep blue, a dusky hue. He became mine. Defeated. Weak. But a slave. I found the answer to the question who am I. His owner. His Mistress. His soul. He, completely mine. His eyes, for me to gaze at my image. His long curly tresses, for me to pass fingers through. His long beard, to graze upon my breasts. His fingers, to caress me. His chest, for me to rest my head upon. His neck, for me to bite, again and again. His life, for me to wound. His birth, to give me pleasure. I was half of him, the man in me. He was half of me, the woman in me. Two souls, intertwined. Two beings, who’d sought each other through many births.
We were in ecstasy. I dug my nails into him. Bit and tore his body. He received me in tenderness and pleasure. We laughed the whole night. In the morning we made rice gruel and chutney and drank it from the same bowl. The ascetic told little jokes and light tales; he sang love songs. He spoke of my tresses, the colours that suited me. Of the son I may bear him. We delighted together in his frolic. We took pride in the quickness of his mind. Hoped that he reposed now in my womb, his tiny spine as delicate as a silken thread, his little brain, the size of a mustard seed. He pressed his face to my womb and gave our son a name. We laughed. I kissed him till he tired.
It was now time for the journey. We sagged. Our smiles faded. The pain rushed back. That moment, when I looked into his eyes to bid goodbye. His eyes. His deep eyes. Pain, tenderness, desire. Terrible loss. That’s how I’ll remember him on my deathbed. He too will remember my face of those moments. Maybe for many births. You do not know how we embraced at the parting moment. Surely, no woman has ever embraced a man like that. I didn’t embrace him with my body. I held him with my soul. He replied with his soul. Our bones were crushed; our flesh was bruised. We melted into each other. Never can we embrace like this. For, we will never meet again. Never will we hold each other. Never will we spend the night together like this.
We will meet again, perhaps, in our next birth. Then too, I was slither like this. Over trees, and hills, over leaves and rocks. I’ll seek him slithering. Find him.
Then too, he will resist me, like now. He will try to push me away, to hate me. In the end, he will collapse from my bite.
Then too we will mate like now. And part, our hearts torn asunder. Even if we part, my blood will long to blend in his.
I can’t bear it. I am worn out. Body and soul, both are wounded. Memories. I’ve loved, loved, my blood vessels are clogged. I’m aging fast. I’m becoming an old woman. My heart beats heavy each time, strained and worn. Each time, his name booms out. Each time, my eyes blink in pain. I see his face. Truly, I can’t bear it. I’m worn out, trying to stop the immense Ganga in mid-air. The Ganga has to fall upon the earth. My eyes smart, not seeing him. My ears tingle, missing his voice. My fingers, my lips, this whole body, my blood, my heart, brain… without him, not for him, I writhe in smouldering pain.
I told you. Life-experience needs honesty. Honesty has no need for morality. At night when my husband comes close all aroused, I turn away, pretending a migraine. I sit transfixed, forgetting myself, as I prepare to sew a button on my older daughter’s dress. As I sit beside my younger daughter’s sickbed tending her feverish body, I remember the wound- mark on my left leg where he touched me first.
“What are you thinking of?” My husband asks, sometimes. “Nothing…” I try to smile.
I wear silk saris for my husband. Wear jasmine in my hair. Darken my eyes with kohl. Spread colour on my lips. We go together to dinner parties and tours. We discuss the girls’ future. On more settled nights, when he comes close, I may even let him do it.
My husband, my children, my house, my servants, my marble floors, my orchids, anthurium … my outer skins growing tight. I stifle and gasp, for him.
I have never gone to that house afterwards. He never lived there. He was sent to some ashram in Kashi or Hardwar. We never wrote to each other. I do not know where he is. I don’t want to know, either. My love was a languid serpent of tremendous venom. It lay in wait for him, biding its time. He came. He trod on its hood. Made it into Takshaka, Kaliya, Anantha. He received it, and left. I will imagine him as a mendicant. In countries I do not know, through paths I’m ignorant of. Mountain passes clad in the white of snow. Paths paved with red sand. His feet, reddened by the long walks. My form in his eyes. My love in his neck. In his arms, our son, who mirrors his face.
I can’t take more. I can’t say or write anymore. Why, I’ve told you. This is not fiction, this is experience. An honest burning sliver of experience. If it were fiction I could have turned it around. Could have said that he gave up asceticism, and I gave up a familial existence, and then we eloped. Or I could have said that I apologised to my husband and remained a chaste wife for the rest of my days. But I’m helpless, this just happens to be a bit of life-experience. A smouldering bit of life that can’t be rewritten or denied. My love is like the house freshly on fire. Even in the downpour of separation, it blazes bright. Tongues of flame raise their hoods to the sky. This birth falls apart, seared, baked. Soon, another birth. The ascetic will come again. We will find each other again.
Once again, my deadly fang will turn him blue – the deepest blue.
(The original in Malayalam is tittled Karineela. Chengannur: Rainbow, 2005. Print.)
Translated by J. Devika
K.R. MEERA. Is a novelist, short story writer, screenplay writer and columnist. Formerly a journalist, she was associated with Malayalam Manorama, the leading newspaper group in Kerala. She became famous early in her writing career with stories remarkable for their variety and unique, captivating style. She has received several prestigious awards including Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award.