Sarada hugged the bag a little closer. Two currency notes must be laughing away to themselves among assorted papers and all in it. Blue, brand-new ones!
This was the first time she ever made such a tidy sum at one go.
The First Fee—a nice title for a story. But this really wasn’t her first fee. Fifteen…twenty…fifty….once she’d even made a hundred. But two hundred at one go—that was certainly something new.
Poring over those blasted accounts during sleepless nights, she’d cursed the judges, lawyers, courts, everything at the same time.
Two hundred rupees— three months of hard grind!
His lordship the judge had said, holding on to the door of his car, ‘You are Krishnan Kutty’s daughter, aren’t you? I wish I could really help you. But what can I do? The times are bad. Nothing ever seems to go one’s way. This job is not really difficult. You don’t have to argue your point or cross-examine someone or anything. Two, maybe three weeks. You only have to check the accounts. That’s all. You’ll be paid well too.,’
Paid well, yes, a princely sum of two hundred rupees!
A good turn to Krishnan Kutty’s daughter, indeed! Since no one else could be bothered with those moth eaten ledgers, he dumped them on her. The conundrum that nobody wanted went to Krishnan Kutty’s daughter. He gave it to her knowing very well that she’d be glad to have any kind of work and wouldn’t refuse. And now he acts as though he has done her a great favour! Anyway, it was over. She was rid of it. Now for a few days of peace and quiet.
While hurrying on she ran her eyes around. She’d reached the bazaar. Lord! What a relief! She can walk leisurely.
This wasn’t such a bad day, she thought. If only my bicycle would break down every day of the year! She would be able to walk home just like other women do.
Father ought to hear this. When you’re sure you’re not doing anything wrong, he would start off, it’s foolish to be bothered by what others have to say about it. In a way he was right. But all this philosophy comes in handy when somebody else is at the receiving end of all those snide remarks from passersby. It’s a little hard when it concerns you.
If one walked, home was a long way off. Still it was better than careering through the main thoroughfare on the bicycle. It was a long time since she started commuting this way but the kids still found her a novelty. They delighted in booing at her. Instead of riding straight as an arrow, if she happened to look this way or that, well, she’s had it!
She didn’t mind the jeering kids. It was the stares from the adults that really got on her nerves. She always wondered why the sight of a woman cycling to her office should elicit stares and snide remarks from these people.
All that was required of her was to think: let them jeer if they must and stare too. Women had to be smart, hadn’t they?
Well, if you pick someone who loved to curl up with a book in some corner, rig her out in a neck-tie and a black gown and set her off to the courts on a bicycle, how do you expect her to cope? She wished she had done her M.A. In that case, she wouldn’t have been required to rig herself out like this. She would have been paid a regular salary—however small—had she taken up a teaching job in a college. And if it were to be a women’s college, she wouldn’t have had to deal with catcalls either. Instead of poring over those blasted accounts she might have lounged about reading poetry.
Oh, why think of all that now? How adamant father had been! If you must study, do your B.L. If not, nothing. Why was he so stubborn? Cost-wise, it would not have made a difference either way. Did he expect that if she studied law, she’d turn to politics of her own free will?
She made way for a motor car and a rikshaw, running abreast. What a rush!
A small signboard caught her eye: ‘Readers’ Book Stall’.
She was reminded of the money in her bag. Why not be extravagant for a change? After all, it was only once in a blue moon. During her stay in the hostel how many times had she watched others blowing money! Why not spend something on herself just this one day? After all she had been paid for three months’ slogging.
It has been a long time since she laid her hands on a good book. She stepped into the book stall.
Pocket books with smooth red and green covers. Penguin books with orange and white covers. Thick classics.
Her eyes shone.
Books wherever one could reach. What a long time it’s been since she was in a place like this. Not since leaving college. In those days what fun it used to be in the library! It didn’t matter if you read nothing. Just tiptoeing among the book-filled cupboards was a pleasure.
How much Radha and Vimala used to tease her saying she was going to be a writer someday!
Now she had dry-as-dust legal books for company. She moved towards the less colourful fat volumes. Complete Works of Shakespeare.
Small print in two columns covering over a thousand pages on thin paper. A very handy volume. Everything that Shakespeare ever wrote. She had been longing for a copy. She glanced at the foot of the back cover.
It cost twelve rupees…
She replaced it on the shelf. She took the other books out one by one: Galsworthy, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky… She wanted to buy the whole lot. Money?
Only this morning she’d listened to the milkman leaving in a huff over the money to be paid to him. And the rent on the house had not been paid for two months. I should never have thought of buying a book, she told herself, I have no right to. Books are a luxury, meant only for the rich.
Lord, how do I get out of this place, she panicked, what will the stall owner think? After hanging around for so long, if I went out without making a purchase—
There was no way she could slip out. There was no other soul in the whole place. How could one leave without a word? What was there to say anyway? Were he to learn the cause of her discomfiture!
She had a brainwave. ‘Do you have Brothers Karamozov?’ She asked turning towards him.
She was sure she had not seen it on the shelves.
What if he were to say, ‘Yes, I’ll get you a copy from inside’? God! Don’t let him have one!
‘Sorry, we don’t have it. The last copy was sold out yesterday.’ The courteous young man was crestfallen. Why did the young woman have to demand a book which happened to be out of stock? He was very proud of his bookshop. Normally he stocked every book that people were likely to demand.
‘I’ll get it for you. It won’t take more than a week’, he continued as if he wanted to make amends for some great mistake on his part.
She regained her composure when she saw him perturbed.
‘No, it’s really not essential. I just thought I might buy one if it was available. There is no need to send for it.’
‘No, it’s really no trouble,’ the poor man continued, none the wiser. ‘No, I’ll come some other time.’
‘If you had come this time yesterday you would have got it.’ Being well-versed in the basics of his business, he could not shake off his feeling of guilt.
‘Never mind. I can always get it some other time. See you.’ She went out.
She looked back when someone called her from behind. Bhaskara Menon.
‘It was I who bought the book yesterday. I bought it to complete my collection. I’ve read it. I don’t mind letting you have it.’
She didn’t know what to say.
Someone who had never shown her a sign of recognition coming to talk to her right in the middle of the road! And Bhaskara Menon, at that!
He paused and then continued, ‘I’ll bring it tomorrow.’
‘I….I don’t need it particularly. Thought I’d just read it. That’s all.’ Damn! She ought to have refused it straightaway!
‘I’ll lend it to you. You can take your own time returning it,’ he said, as though he sensed her reservations. She wanted to refuse that too. By the time she had framed a refusal in her mind, he was walking alongside, wheeling his bicycle.
What’s wrong with borrowing a book? She’d meant to read it when she saw it in somebody’s hands three years back. She couldn’t till now. Now someone was offering it to her. Borrow the book, read it and return it to him. That’s all. What’s the big deal?
Nothing? He is Damodara Panicker’s son. It was with him that she was beginning this business of lending and borrowing of books. Even walking along the road in his company like this did not bode well for her.
‘You have read a lot, haven’t you, Miss Sarada?’ He spoke after they’d turned into the lane off the main road.
‘Oh, no! I haven’t read a lot. At any rate, not much these days. I don’t have time.’
She should not have told him that. It slipped out unbidden. What was the need to have told him that she wanted to read and hardly ever got time? He made no answer to that. He walked on, eyes fixed on the ground. She was grateful for his silence. They walked on in silence for some more time.
Then somehow they started talking. The conversation began with Dostoevsky and meandered in many directions. About writing and writers. Without realizing it they reached the place where the road forked into the lane which she had to take. They stopped at the junction.
‘Namaskaram,’ he said, glancing at her face. ‘Namaskaram.’
After walking on for a while she turned back and saw him riding away on his bicycle.
They had been meeting each other off and on for two years but their acquaintance had never developed into anything beyond a few smiles.
But this day-
As he came along the road he must have heard her ask for the book and the shopkeeper say that it was sold out.
So what? You don’t buy books to lend it to all and sundry, do you?
Wasn’t it only the other day she heard rattle Sankaran Nair say in the Bar Room that Bhaskara Menon would never ever let a soul into his library nor let anyone so much as open the cupboards?
They why did he offer to lend the book to her?
When she heard Sankaran Nair’s talk, she only took it to mean that Bhaskara Menon had a lot of money, with which among other things he also bought quite a number of books and kept them, clean and dusted. He might never lend his books out, but he certainly must be handling them well himself. Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to talk like this. Who would have thought that a lazy bones who lounged about smoking all the time, would be so amazingly well-informed and well-read. People said he came to the bar council just to drink tea and chat. No one ever heard him argue a case. He came once in a while when the mood took him and scarcely ever came or left on time. They said he spent his days on the grounds and his evenings in the theatre.
He had a lot of money. He could please himself, couldn’t he? Yes, he did have money. His father had made lots of it.
Damodara Panicker’s son! She shouldn’t have. She ought to have said a firm ‘No’. If father were to find out about this! It will only bring trouble.
As if he would remember! He wouldn’t even have meant it. Anyway, it would be better if he forgot. Still….
‘Look, Valiyechi is home…’ When Sarada reached the gate a cry went up from the yard. She got in and locked the gate. The children ran up to mill around her.
Someone has compared children to flowers.
‘The sari’s freshly ironed. Take your hands off, boy!’
Did it make that bud droop a bit? Look at his chest sticking out! Is his liver cure over?
‘Gopalankutty, did you take your medicine today?’
‘No.’ So it was over and she hadn’t bought it. He wasn’t the only one who needed medicines, was he? Who’d guess Ammini was all of nine? As if the other chap has anything to write home about!
‘Charu, why do you keep standing in the yard? It’s five, isn’t it?
Come and have your coffee, dear.’
Amma came out holding the baby. So the noise made by the children must have reached the kitchen. She went straight to her room and closed the door. She was about to remove the pallu of her sari from her shoulder but she placed it back. Contrary to her usual custom, she moved towards the mirror on the wall. Just as Malati had told her that day, she really had two eyes filling her face.
She took the mirror in her hand. Rubbing a finger against her cheek, she stood looking at it for a long while. As if she were studying some one else’s reflection.
Small face, not bad. Small nose. Nothing wrong with it either. But the shape of the mouth was all wrong, especially the lips. Not luscious enough. Shouldn’t they resemble red berries?
Altogether she needed a little more flesh. The cheeks should fill out a bit. Since they were not so, her eyes looked enormous. Hm…Should put on a little more weight.
Put on weight!
She laughed softly to herself. She hung the mirror on the wall and changed quickly out of her sari. She was getting into another one she’d taken off the clothesline when Amma brought her a mug of coffee and a banana leaf packet.
‘I would’ve come over, Amma!’
‘Have this before you change, Charu, it’s late.’ ‘Do you know what I have got for you, Amma?’
‘Is it money by any chance? The milkman came twice today. He had plenty to say.’
She got the two brand new notes from her bag and held them out to
‘How much Ammu? Are they hundreds?’
‘Oh, yes! You don’t know your daughter yet, do you? Two hundred
rupees. Just for a simple matter of checking some accounts. Got it?’ ‘Two hundred rupees! I’ll send for the milkman. We’ll pay the rent
also. Thank God!’
Thank god, she thought, I hadn’t changed the hundred rupee note to buy the book.
‘Your coffee has gone cold.’
She gulped it down and placed the mug on the table.
‘There was just one banana left from that lot. It isn’t ripe yet. I skinned it and grilled it with salt. Hope it’s done nicely.’
Opening the leaf packet, the mother pushed it towards her daughter.
Sarada was leaning on the table with one leg half perched on it. She had only stretched out her hand to take the packet when she felt somebody’s presence at the door and looked back.
Three pairs of hungry eyes! How long have they been silently waiting there!
‘Gopalankutty!’ she called, breaking off a piece.
‘Hmm. They’re all here?’ Her mother became aware of their presence only then. ‘I brought it here so they won’t know. But what’s the use? All they do is have their fill of coffee well before the four o’clock siren and romp about the yard. Won’t even let her have her cup of coffee in peace once she’s home. Makes a pretence of eating a mouthful of rice in the morning and leaves, doesn’t she?’
‘None of us got bananas.’ It was Gopalankutty who said it.
She carefully broke pieces of the banana on which three hungry pairs of eyes were still fixed and gave them each a piece. She threw the last little bit into her mouth without looking at her mother’s face.
Amma left with the cup. Sarada went to the porch.
For the past two or three months, she had been keeping her nose to the grindstone. Now that she had nothing to occupy her, she felt disoriented. She used to rush to the ledgers once she had her coffee. There was no longer any need for that.
She strolled about in the yard.
Padmini was making a garland of jasmines sitting in the corner of the verandah on the eastern side of the house. Where did she manage to get the flowers? Must be a treat from her some friend or other. So I can expect a piece of it today, she thought. You should keep Valiyechi in good spirits shouldn’t you? Don’t you have to cajole an anna or two out of her once in a while for bangles and ribbons?
Sarada stood watching her for a while.
Once she finished the garland, she divided it into two equal portions and removed them on to a leaf. She shook her skirt out and stood up. Then she started to take out the tangles in her hair.
She’s a cute little thing, she thought.
Sarada went up to her. ‘Would you like me to plait your hair? Oh, if I do it, it won’t be nice and modern enough for you, will it?’
‘Oh, no! It’s dark after all.’ She stepped in front of her sister. Sarada laughed.
‘So my handiwork is only good enough after dark?’ Padmini too laughed.
‘Make it tight, sister. Here’s the ribbon. Work it into the plait.’ When it was over, she worked the flowers into her plaits herself and offered the other half to her sister.
‘Shall I put them on your hair?’ ‘No, keep it.’
Sarada went to the kitchen verandah. What’s Parootty upto?
Just as she’d expected, Parootty was washing dishes near the water
‘Come here, please!’
She took the dishes into the kitchen and came out. ‘Finished your chores?’
‘Rice is cooking. It won’t be done for some more time. Everything
else is over.’
‘So you are not in a hurry, are you? Why can’t you keep your hair in a plait, Parootty?’
Something like surprise or joy lit up the dark face.
‘Where’s time? And anyway it’s difficult to work near the hearth with your hair in plaits.’
‘Okay, come here. Let me plait your hair. Let’s see how it looks.’
She slowly worked her fingers into the darkness that tumbled out of a top knot.
What tresses! She had the best-looking hair of the lot. So thick you couldn’t hold it with one hand.
Did nature bless her with long, thick tresses because she’d not been blessed with anything else? Buck teeth, dull eyes, dark complexion, only the hair was beautiful.
Everyone else was fair. What went wrong with her? If not beauty, she could at least have been blessed with intelligence. She’d failed in every class till she’d been relegated to the kitchen to become a drudge! The beast of burden hitched to a loaded wagon.
Why didn’t she even have a pretty name? She was born when father was serving time in jail. Was that why her name began as Parukutty and ended up as Parootty? Perhaps they’d foreseen even at the time she was destined for drudgery.
Why did she have to be born poor like this? Is it right for human beings to be born with nothing to their credit, like this? It’s injustice. Sheer injustice on the part of nature. Push someone on to the battleground unarmed, with no armour or gauntlet.
‘Kochechi… Where’s she got to?’
Calling to her sister, Padmini reached the kitchen yard. ‘Hmm? What’s up?’ It was Sarada who asked.
‘Rice is done.’
‘So? Can’t you see what she’s doing here?’
‘Amma told her to come and strain the rice. She said it will be overdone.’
‘Why don’t you do it yourself?’ ‘I’m supposed to light the lamp.’
‘Oh! I haven’t swept the porch.’ Parootty got into a tizzy. Sarada paid no heed to her.
‘Listen, Padmini Amma. For one thing, you can go and see to the
‘I don’t know how to.’
‘You take the pot off the fire, keep it on the ledge with the lid on,
and tilt it ever so carefully. That’s how it’s done.’ ‘I still don’t know.’
‘You’ve got to learn anyhow. Try it once. And then, get the broom and sweep the front porch. Kochechi will be over there by that time.’
Padmini pulled a face.
‘She’d burn both her limbs, chechi!…Let me go.’
‘Don’t worry, she won’t. She’s not a kid. It’s time she learnt these things.’
Sarada plaited her hair slowly. She let the tip free so as to highlight the thick hair which spread out like a fan. She worked the garland of flowers into her hair and let her go.
Who does Padmini think she is, ordering her sister to strain the cooked rice?
On top of everything else she has to put up with her younger sister’s haughtiness too. Poor Parootty. She’s been born to suffer.
Is there no way she can get out of this? Getting out!
There is no way. Not for her only. What about me, she wondered.
Gossamer thin strings bind my feet. There’s no way I can break free.
No way at all.
For some inexplicable reason, she was suddenly reminded of the young man she’d met on the road. Damodara Panicker’s son. Father and Panicker!
Did Panicker really do something dreadful? Father believed it was he who had ruined his life. How far was it true? Did something really happen for him to crib about? He was a businessman. He didn’t want to miss an opportunity. That was all. There really had never been a question of integrity. He wanted his own way. That was it. He got it too.
Why did father have to expect more than that? Why did he have to make friends with a rich man? The relationship went sour in their youth. So why harp on it now?
Even otherwise, did his action really change father’s life to any great extent? Was it really due to him that father ended up like this? Wasn’t it due to his own shortcomings? How can you say that someone else would not have taken Panicker’s place?
God! What am I thinking! It’s dangerous to doubt. One must believe blindly.
Prabhan chettan said before he left: ‘Sarada, there’s hope for you till you lose faith. The moment you come to realize that your idol is mere clay, everything is finished. Before the idol crumbles, you must get out of the temple. You should never have to offer sympathy where you offered worship’.
Prabhan chettan. It was when he left that she felt saddest. That was the only time that she wept.
How she longed to have a brother of her own like him!
Of all those who came to meet her father, she had a feeling of respect only towards him. How intelligent he was! Once he’d left, the newspaper never took up.
Everyone worth his salt had left. Only Ramankutty stayed back. He stayed because he wasn’t good enough for anything else. He was her
father’s nephew; so he had the right to stay, didn’t he? He was older than her but she never even felt like calling him ‘chetta.’ Idiot!
Did they all leave because he really had nothing to offer them?
Does it mean that there is nothing behind the halo?
God, was her temple too beginning to grow desolate? ‘Deepam’… Padmini was bringing the lamp out. She hadn’t
She hurried in. The children sat round the lamp chanting the Lord’s name. Taking a bar of soap and a towel she went to the bathroom and closed the door.
By the time she finished washing herself, the children had sat down to have their rice gruel. It was a free for all in the kitchen. It was through the racket that she picked her way to the front porch. There was no one there. She made her way back to the kitchen.
‘Amma, where’s Aniyan? It’s nearly eight.’
‘Aniyan chettan has gone for a movie.’ It was Padmini who replied. ‘Why did you give him money Amma? He’d been to one only the
day before yesterday.’
‘I didn’t give him money.’ Amma replied, while ladling out rice gruel. ‘He didn’t ask me either.’
Hearing the sound of the gate being opened, Sarada went to the front porch.
It was father, with Ramankutty in tow.
Now they’ll go on and on about the newspaper, she thought.
Krishnankutty Menon threw himself down into the canvas chair on the porch. Looking at the haggard, bony face and sunken eyes, no one would guess the fire that he had carried within himself at one time. Everything had burnt down. A few embers lay smouldering in the ashes, giving out smoke that choked you.
He was the person who, twenty – five years ago, in a fit of patriotic zeal had thrown caution to the winds and set out….
Twenty – five years ago….
The whole country had been in turmoil. A time when people thought of prison terms as pilgrimages.
The north wind blew in the seed of revolution. It fell on fertile soil and sprouted quickly.
And a lawyer who wasn’t thirty yet threw off his coat and gown and arrayed himself for battle in coarse khadi clothes.
It was not a well-thought out deed at all. The atmosphere was sultry. The battle cry rang out, strong and strident. When a tidal wave came rushing in, quite a few were swept away. The young lawyer was sucked into the whirlpool. When he came up after a space of time, he found he’d been swept a long way off from land.
His was a heart that could easily be swayed by strong emotions. It was not on the higher planes of intellect that the revolt had been planned but on the quicksand of volatile emotions. He had been something of an intellectual among the young men of the time. But in the struggle it
was emotion that took precedence over intellect.
Even in those days, there’d been a family solely dependent on him. A wife and a child who could survive only by the sweat of his brow. Who’d think of that when one’s blood was on fire?
Speeches were made and laws broken.
One fine morning, the red caps came to take him away. He went behind bars as if it was a consummation he’d been longing for.
When he set out on his crusade, there had been one who worked shoulder to shoulder with him — Damodara Panicker.
Was it patriotism, pure and simple, that made the heir to millions tread the thorny path? He had unlimited wealth. He didn’t have to work for a living. A life of unstinted pleasure. Did he set out in search of variety? Cloyed with a regular fare of sweetmeat did he, even at the time, merely want to try out something hot and spicy for a change?
At any rate, he too had not been lacking in zeal. Panicker was there right behind Krishnankutty Menon in everything. They took part in meetings and rallies together. Faced the very first blows of the lathi also in each other’s company.
But it was Menon who led the way. Panicker was always ready to do Menon’s bidding. He was willing to follow blindfold, wherever Menon led. A kind of hero-worship. The warrant had come for them both at the same time. Panicker’s father had been alive at the time.
The policeman came to the house of the mill owner who could afford to buy up the whole village if he set his mind to it, with a warrant for his son’s arrest.
Dawn was just breaking.
The inspector was met by the father. He took the officer to one of the inner rooms and closed the door. They were closeted together for about half an hour. Then the door opened and the inspector went back just as he’d come in. Panicker’s father accompanied him to the gate.
The son who lay fast asleep in his room knew nothing about it. The father left by the afternoon train, taking his son along. He put in an appearance only after six months when the storm had died down. They were accompanied by a third person. A cute little thing that definitely warranted a second look. It was only then that most people came to know of Damodara Panicker’s marriage in exile.
After spending two years in jail, when Krishnankutty Menon came out, his friend had undergone a sea change.
Panicker was no longer his former self. His father died suddenly, of no particular illness. The onus of running the mill fell on him. He had a wife and a child. He had responsibilities at home too. He took the householder’s duties very seriously and was trying very hard to forget whatever he had got up to two years ago.
Menon took quite sometime to grasp the situation. Once out of jail he waited for a couple of days for his admirer to turn up and pay his respects. On the third day he set out in search of him.
He had never set foot inside the house while Panikker’s father was alive. Still it was with great self confidence that he walked up to the spacious porch.
A servant came and asked him what he wanted. When informed that he wished to meet Panicker, the man wanted to know who he should say had called.
This was not what he had expected. Still, he managed to keep his cool and replied with a measure of self-possession.
It was to the next room that the servant disappeared. He could hear them on the porch.
There was no response for sometime after the servant had conveyed his message.
Three or four minutes must have passed. ‘Tell him I’m not home.’
The servant came out. ‘The master is not here.’
Menon went back without a word. He never set foot in the house
He waited for some more days. There must be a mistake
somewhere. Could Damu ever really say that?
At long last, he realized that it was futile to wait for him. Damu who had been his shadow was no more. Damu was dead, only Damodara Panicker survived.
He had a feeling that he’d irrevocably lost something which had always been a part of him.
The very first blow to his ego. The wound healed in course of time.
But the rancour remained.
They went their separate ways. Panicker continued to be a four- anna member of the Congress. Only, he no longer took part in agitations. He was evolving slowly into a first rate business man and was mastering the art of nosing out a bargain.
Menon went on, sometimes in and at other times out of, jail. He had time for nothing except politics. In his house nothing ever grew except the size of the family. The eldest child died. Its mother cried a lot. Yet more children were born. Somehow or other the house ran itself. Menon’s wife had inherited a little something from her side of the family and with that the family pulled on.
Menon had launched the newspaper partly to meet the financial crunch. With a band of followers behind him, it didn’t seem difficult at all. He had a band of daring young men at his beck and call.
The newspaper did not exactly mint money but it did quite well for a while. One by one the followers began to desert him. In the beginning, new faces took the place of old ones but slowly that ceased. When someone left there was no other to take his place. Followers began to evolve into leaders in their own right. The newcomers began to leave in search of greener pastures.
Prabhakaran was one who remained almost till the end. When he also left only Ramankutty remained.
India won freedom. The country finally belonged to us. The wheel took a full turn. Khadi came into fashion. Politics became a rich man’s sport.
Menon wanted to contest the very first election. He waited for them to ask him. No one did. The party fielded someone else and that person won.
For the next election, Menon offered himself as a candidate. No one responded.
Everyone filed their nominations. Menon learnt the name of the Congress candidate from the papers.
The same evening Sri Krishnan Kutty Menon resigned from the Congress Party and joined the P.S.P.
Another election was declared. This time Menon was a candidate. Rumours were rife about whom the Congress would field.
The last day for filling nominations came. Everyone got to know the Congress candidate: Damodara Panicker!
The campaign was hectic. As far as Menon was concerned, the campaign had taken on the shades of a revenge drama. He still nursed the old grouse.
Former friends spoke at the same maidan. The same set of people listened to what both of them had to say.
Their followers indulged in a lot of mud slinging. Panicker spent money like water.
The polling was over.
On the counting day Menon’s people waited, garland and all, ready to take out a rally.
The last box was opened. Counting was over. Congress was in majority. Was it party power? Or the glory of money? Or the charisma of the candidate? Whatever it was, Panicker won the election.
When the victory rally passed his gate Menon went in and slammed the door. After that he never tried to enter the legislature.
His new friends had hopes of exploiting his name. Their attitude changed when Menon refused to play along.
Now Menon did not belong to any party. In a way it was convenient. He could pick on every party. His newspaper criticized the government in power so also the opposition which didn’t get a chance to govern the state. He spared none. A kind of unbalanced diatribe came to fill the paper.
He would be making the rounds till very late in the night. His nephew was always with him, hanging on to every word of his. He had to cover all the public meetings and speeches and finish the editorial work on the newspaper before the deadline. When he got home exhausted, he’d flop down somewhere.
Krishnankutty Menon turned over in his chair.
This particular day, the man had returned, bored to tears, from a public meeting. As soon as he got home, he lay down and closed his eyes not uttering a word to anyone.
Ramankutty positioned himself on a broken-down chair in the corner.
Sarada stood near, turning over the pages of the daily he’d brought. Menon stirred at the sound of pages being turned over.
‘Is that you, Charu? Bring me a glass of cumin tea.’ Sarada brought him a glass of cumin tea from the kitchen. ‘Here you are, Father.’
He opened his eyes. He drank a little and kept the glass on the arm of the chair.
‘There’s a meeting tomorrow at the ground. Achutha Kurup is going to speak. You must go there at five.
Ramankutty will come with you. It’s no use sending him alone. I’m busy otherwise. Just go with him. Your piece should appear in the daily day after tomorrow. Make mincemeat of them.’
Sarada made no reply.
‘Why don’t you speak? What are you doing there?’ ‘Nothing. I’ll go.’
‘Don’t forget to be home early from the court.’ ‘I won’t forget.’
It was thinking of Bhaskara Menon that Sarada woke up the next morning. The man who had promised to lend her the book!
Will he remember to bring it?
As if he would! He’d have a whole lot of other things to worry about. He won’t be dwelling on this all the time like me, she thought.
When it was time to go to the court, she plaited her hair in two and pinned the plaits up as usual. Somehow it took longer than usual.
After pinning up her hair securely, she stood before the mirror for some more time. Her face looked slightly oily. Why not put some powder on? Will there be some left in Padmini’s tin, she wondered.
She took the old tin from the drawer and shook it. A pinch of talcum powder fell on her palm.
Has the girl hoarded it somewhere else?
‘There’s nothing in it, sister. It’s been two weeks now.’ Why did she have to come in just now?
‘You don’t have classes today, do you?’
‘No. Will you buy me a tin on your way back, sister? It’s been ages since you bought me this one. I made it last this long because I refused to share it with the kids. Will you buy me a new one?
‘Let me see.’
Sarada came out of the court room extremely tired. Even though she was used to the job by now, she went through hell every time she had to speak. All that she ever had to speak were a few words. Even that was hard.
To add to her difficulties, the bicycle had been repaired and she could not very well refuse to ride it.
Bhaskara Menon wasn’t around. She heard someone say that a cricket match was being played on the premises of the court.
It was after turning into the lane past the main road that Sarada casually looked back.
There was Bhaskara Menon just behind her.
He got off his bicycle and extended a brown packet towards her. ‘Here’s the book.’ She too got off. Somehow she could not bring herself to take it.
Since he had not even bothered to put in an appearance at the court, she really had not expected him to remember.
‘Take your own time.’
She took the book. She began to walk, with the book in one hand and pushing the bicycle along with the other.
‘You can keep the book on the carrier.’ She said nothing.
Without waiting for her response, he took the book from her and inserted it under the rubber band on the carrier.
They walked on, wheeling their bicycles along. Since they were talking all the while, the distance seemed shorter. Just as on the previous day, when they reached the place where she had to turn, he said ‘namaste’ and took leave of her.
It was nearly five-thirty when Sarada made it home. Ramankutty was waiting for her in the front yard.
‘You are a nice one! You promised to be back early and here you are at half past five. I’ve been waiting here for over an hour. Uncle told you that the meeting began at five, didn’t he?
Suddenly she remembered. The damn meeting! ‘I’ll come right now, just a moment, please.’
She handed her bag to Padmini, made a pretence of having her coffee and started out.
The meeting must have got under way at least half an hour ago, she thought. Why couldn’t the fellow have gone earlier? Waiting for me indeed! Now, should father come to know that they were not on time!
Fifteen minutes of furious walking got them to the grounds. It was full of people. They took their seats in a corner.
When it was all over and they were about to leave, she looked at the watch.
It was past seven.
Was it so late? She was hardly aware of the passage of time. She began to panic. She had not been listening to a word. She was busy, thinking of this and that. She did not even know what the whole thing was about. Lord, if father were to ask—
‘Why do you look tired, Sarada? You wouldn’t have had a proper tea. Let’s go to Maruti and have a cup of coffee,’ Ramankutty said, when they started to move after the crowd had thinned a bit.
‘No, thanks. I’m not tired.’
She certainly was not going to have coffee with him in a hotel at seven in the night. Not on her life!
‘Would you like something cold then? There’s a place round the corner.’
‘No. I don’t need anything.’ As if all she needed now was a cool
She quickened her pace.
When they got home they found Aniyan seated on the porch, his
legs spread out before him.
The children stood round him.
So he has not gone to a movie, Sarada thought.
It was only when she drew near that she found that some kind of first aid was being applied to his leg.
A roll of cotton and a bottle of iodine stood near.
‘What’s wrong with your leg, Aniya?’ ‘I’m putting on iodine.’
‘I can see that. I’m asking you what went wrong’ ‘Chettan hurt his leg while playing football.’
It was the youngest boy who replied. His voice rang with awe. ‘It isn’t serious, is it, Aniya?’ Sarada continued.
‘Is it very bad?’
‘When you get hurt, it’s always bad for you.’ ‘I’m not going to take you on.’
‘Did someone ask you to?’ She went in.
By the time she’d washed herself, father was home. ‘Charu, how did it go?’ He asked, as soon as he came in. ‘It was okay.’
‘Eh, what do you mean, okay?’
Sarada found herself in a fix. She’d blurted it out, without much thought. It was Achutha Kurup who spoke. What the hell made her say that his speech was okay? Oh, God!
‘What exactly did he say? Tell me!’ ‘He-that is…’
‘Did you not go to the meeting?’ ‘Yes, I did.’
‘What were you doing there?’
‘I…’ she gave up. What if she blurted out something and it turned out that it had nothing to do with what he had said?
‘Ramankutty too was there.’
As soon as it was out, she wished it unsaid.
‘I know very well that Ramankutty was with you. I’d told him too. Would he have kept away? Did I send you to come back and tell me that he’d been with you? Is this what you’re supposed to do when you’re sent on a job?’
She did not speak. She deserved all this for having day-dreamed through the meeting. This wasn’t enough, she really deserved much more.
She did not respond. Lord, why should I be harassed? Somebody must have made a report. He only had to look at it. Won’t it be enough if he had a look at that?
‘If you carry on like this, Charu, where will we be?’ He lowered his voice. ‘If you don’t care, who will? As for Aniyan, he has no sense of responsibility. That leaves only Ramankutty. His being here or not doesn’t make a difference. If you didn’t….’
Sarada wanted to scream: ‘I cannot do anything. I cannot possibly do anything.’ Fortunately the cry died down in her throat.
‘Don’t you feel well, Charu? Here’s a way out, she thought. ‘I’ve a headache.’
‘In that case why did you go? Would anyone in their right senses set out to listen to a speech with a headache? Would you be able to pay attention? Go and lie down, Charu. How can you be so foolish?’
Six months went by. Sarada and Bhaskara Menon met everyday. In the evening, they made their way back together. Once they turned off the main road they’d get off their bicycles and start to walk, wheeling their bicycles along. They had a million things to talk about. There never was any dearth of topics. He brought her more books. She read and returned them. Days seemed to fly.
All the while her family was sinking deeper and deeper into trouble. Debts kept piling up. The circulation of the daily kept dwindling into nothing.
Once he was home, Krishnankutty Menon made it a habit of losing his temper with everyone. He was slowly cracking up under the stress. Days that crowned a life that was a saga of failure.
It had been a long time since the burden of running the house hold shifted to Sarada’s shoulders. Both father and daughter pretended not to notice the fact. As far as the father was concerned, it was an act that he put on, albeit unconsciously. He maintained the pretence even to himself. The man’s ego needed it. He was supposed to be the bread winner. It was, after all, his duty.
Time was running out for the newspaper. His final enterprise too was crashing down by the minute before his very eyes. Another chapter
of failure was drawing to a close. How many more left? Was the epilogue at hand? Or was there anything more left?
Even at this juncture he wasn’t willing to concede defeat. How could he bring himself to do so before his own wife and children?
He made it a habit of blowing his top at everyone. Ramankutty had to bear the worst of it. He put up with his uncle’s rage and ridicule with the impassivity of a cart horse. Nothing seemed to penetrate his thick skin.
Complaints piled up about Sarada. With rancour arising out of a feeling of guilt, her father seemed to find fault with her all the time. Her lack of interest was the cause of every misfortune. Had she taken pains, the newspaper wouldn’t have been in this state. He couldn’t really be expected to keep an eye on everything in his old age, could he?
He had educated his daughter, expecting her to take care of everything. But did she bother with any of this? She had a hundred other things to settle!
Listening to this day in and day out, Sarada got fed up. At times, she pretended not to hear. She tried to make amends but it was of little avail.
The truth was that none of this ever really touched her. She’d risen unconsciously above all this to a world all her own, a world of whose existence her people did not even know. In that world the rainbow had brighter colours and dusk acquired a brighter shade of red. Moonlight was dazzlingly white and the star-spangled autumn sky was bluer than ever.
It was an indefinable emotional experience.
She saw the familiar world around her dressed in a halo of colours.
It was through an aureole of light that she looked at the universe.
There was beauty everywhere. Suddenly she realized that the tree that she saw everyday on the road was in bloom. She read poetry into the rustling sound of the bamboo grove which stood arching its head over the road. There was music even in the insistent call of an ashy drongo from among the fronds of a coconut tree.
She was discovering something new by the minute. Invisible fingers made music in the dormant recesses of the heart of the girl who might have written poetry.
Every evening on her way home, as soon as the tall and slender young man, with an unruly shock of straight hair falling on to his brow and a straight nose that turned ever so slightly down at the tip, appeared at the corner where the road branched off into a lane she felt herself being lifted cloud high.
Once past the corner, it would not take long to reach her own world of naked truths that could drag her down to earth or even below. Padmini complained that she had no skirt to wear to school.
Aniyan was getting to be more irresponsible and headstrong by the day. No question of reading anything. Went to movies everyday. Reached home only late in the night. As soon as he got home, father and son invariably fought over his late hours. Whatever anybody else had to say never seemed to touch him. The youngest boy, possibly taking a leaf out of his brother’s book, threw tantrums all the time. The younger children fell ill by turns. Neither making demands nor staking her claim to anything, but causing the most pain to her sister by her mute presence, was Parootty.
From time to time a voice seemed to whisper in her ears that her intimacy with Bhaskara Menon boded ill for her. But it died out soon. The melodious music that rose up newly in her heart instantly drowned it.
When her soul, which had been slowly shrivelling up, longed for
water, it was he who rained a droplet or two into it. The woman in her who craved for compassion recognized in him a mate with a mind and a will to share her emotions and feelings. At that particular juncture, she badly needed someone like him.
Looking back on that day afterwards, Sarada wondered many times whether a word or a look from her had prompted Bhaskara Menon into saying that. Perhaps not. May be he had come prepared. But to her, it certainly was unexpected. She had left the court later than usual.
They had been talking as usual.
He was telling her about the job that he’d been offered in Delhi.
They paused when they reached the corner. He said, without preamble, ‘Sarada, will you marry me?’
A thrill of pleasure coursed through her body.
A squirrel, its tail raised, was busy munching something on a low- hanging branch of the old jack tree. The wind made a rustling noise in the bamboo grove beyond the wall in the east.
When she did not respond, he continued, ‘Did you never expect me to propose? You never even had an inkling? Did this feeling that fills my whole being never find an echo in you, Sarie?
‘I had been waiting to land some kind of a job before I asked you this, Sarie. I am a lazy fellow. But if I set my mind to it, I really can change. I’ve never felt the need so far. And I’ve never bothered to change either. That’s the truth.’ He paused for a while.
‘I really can make a living on my own.’ That sounded puerile to her at the time. Had she ever thought him incapable of making a living? That he couldn’t make money? A job! Even if he didn’t have one, to go with him where he asked her to—
The squirrel trilled from the old jack tree. It roused her.
‘My father-‘ she was, in fact, speaking her thoughts out aloud.
He understood her train of thought. ‘Will he not give in, once he realizes where his daughter’s heart lies?’
‘Father will never understand. He doesn’t think our way.’ ‘Destroy his daughter’s happiness for an old grouse?’ She said nothing.
‘Do you think that the sins of one generation should visit the next?’
She had nothing to say to that too. She stood still, staring fixedly at the ground. He too stopped talking.
Five or six minutes passed.
‘Can’t you give me time to think it over?’ She said in a low voice, without raising her head.
‘Of course. How long?’
‘Today is Monday. I’ll give you an answer next Monday.’
‘Okay. Now we part. Please remember one thing. It takes a much stronger will to brush off the cobwebs that stick close to your leg than to break iron chains. Namaste!’
She took leave of him silently with her eyes and turned away.
When she’d taken a couple of steps, all the realities of life stepped away from her. In her field of consciousness only one thing remained. There was someone to love her. And for her to love. Every beat of her heart proclaimed it. Her whole body throbbed with the knowledge.
He loves me…loves me….
When she reached home, in spite of herself, her lips were curved in a smile.
On the following day too they returned home in each other’s company. They did not speak much. The same thought filled their minds. But they had made up their minds not to talk about it. So they could not express what was in their hearts. And they were left with nothing to talk about. They had no quarrel with this silence. After walking on for three fourths of an hour in companionable silence they bestowed a smile on each other and happily went their separate ways.
They were in a world where words did not matter. All her waking hours Sarada had just one thought.
After mulling over it for a long time, Sarada would make up her mind to follow where her heart led. Once she was home, she was confused all over again.
How would father take it, she worried. Would he ever be able to bear it if she were to tell him she was going as a bride to the house of a man whom he took to be his greatest enemy, and that too while that man was still alive?
Wouldn’t there be opposition on the other side? Would Panicker be ready to receive Krishnankutty Menon’s daughter? Did the son suggest they should elope because he knew only too well that his father would never agree?
What a mess!
Just shake the dust off my feet and take off to Delhi, that’s what I must do, she thought. Together we can turn over a new leaf.
God! Who’ll the kids have? Will it be possible to look after her brothers and sisters from Delhi? Could she, by right, demand that she be allowed to provide for her people, after setting the son and the father at odds? Even if he were to agree, would father ever deign to accept money from the wife of Damodara Panicker’s son? Then the children…
Once outside the confines of her home, she felt drawn to the other side. Her mind would begin to waver when that world of music and poetry beckoned.
All her misgivings were dispelled the moment she set eyes on her beloved. The man whom she loved was waiting for her, his eloquent eyes declaring his love for her…
The seven days were thus drawing to a close.
It was about seven on Sunday evening. Sarada was taking a stroll in the eastern courtyard. Padmini came out in a great hurry.
‘Valyechi, there’s some kind of trouble in there. Chettan’s got the cupboard open and is pulling out everything. Come and see, please!’
Sarada went in. Just as Padmini had told her, Aniyan was searching for something, after having pulled out dhotis and bundles of the children’s old dresses. Her mother squatted on the floor, crying.
‘What is this, Aniyan? What does all this mean?’ It was not Aniyan who replied, but his mother.
‘He says he needs money. As if I have any! There isn’t a single paise in there. I told him that and he’s not convinced. He snatched the key from me and is messing about.’
Sarada did not speak. She just stood there.
“Oh, no! Don’t make off with that!’ Her mother suddenly cried. ‘It’s Ammini’s broken chain. I promised to get it repaired and I kept putting it off. Don’t take it, please. She’ll be shattered. Oh God! What shall I do?’
He was opening a packet that he had found among the pile of dhotis.
‘Aniyan, put it back!’ Sarada said, without raising her voice.
He paid no heed to her. He took a tiny gold chain out of the packet, looked at it and replacing it in the packet, slipped it into his pocket.
‘Aniyan! I am telling you, give it to me!’
He was stuffing the clothes scattered on the floor back into the cupboard.
‘This is the limit.’
Having stuffed everything back in to the cupboard and locked it, he threw the key to his mother.
She took a couple of steps near him. ‘There is a limit to your impudence’.
‘Really? Give me cash. And I’ll let you have this.’
He stepped on to the porch, gently pushing his sister, who was blocking the door, to one side.
Sarada followed him. Full of sorrow and rage, she had no idea what to say to him.
‘Give him money! Where does he think it’ll come from? Do we have a money tree or something in the backyard to pay him every time he asks for money?
Shameless boy! You don’t spare a thought as to how we pull on here! All that you ever do is drink tea and go to movies! And on top of everything take a chain which belongs to a kid who’s no bigger than your thumb! I’ll not let you do that!’
‘It doesn’t hurt you if I drink tea or go to movies,’ he turned back to throw at her. ‘And I don’t drink tea at your or anybody else’s expense. Leave it. I’ll never again disturb you –will that do? I badly need some money today. You can say whatever you like, but I’m going to take this.’
‘How very macho!’
‘Oh, perhaps not. Okay. I’m not macho enough, I grant you. At any rate I’ll not trouble you again. I’ll take care of myself. I’m going. You no longer have to feed me. I’ll take this chain, instead. Take it as my share of the property, if you please.’
‘Property! There’s a whole lot waiting to be picked up! Where are you going, if I may ask?’
‘That is none of your business. I’m leaving.’
‘None of my business, is it? He says he’ll go. Your parents, who brought you up—-‘
‘I will go. I’ll get out of this hellhole somehow. I can’t go to a movie. If I take a cup of tea somewhere, all hell breaks loose. If I turn this way, you pick on me. If I turn that, again you pick on me. Every time I come home, there’s a show down. I am not supposed to ask for money even if it’s absolutely necessary. I’m fed up, listening to your nagging. A nice job of bringing up children my parents have made!’
‘Did they ever deny you anything deliberately? Was it not because they could not afford to?’
‘Exactly! They will never be able to afford anything. If you can’t give your children a proper childhood, you shouldn’t have them in the first place.’
‘Yes, you should realize that you have the responsibility to bring up your children properly before you have them in the first place. It isn’t enough if you just have them. Moth-eaten politics and a newspaper not worth the paper it’s printed on. A nice upbringing indeed!’
‘ Don’t provoke me. I’m leaving. I want to see if I can survive.’
All the children stood in a group near the inner door. No one spoke. No sound. Amma stood leaning on the wall. She’d stopped crying.
He walked out through the gate.
Her mother did not move. She stood still, looking at the road her son had taken. Silence hung heavy in the room.
The minutes crawled by. Sarada looked at the gate. It was still
He’s left without closing the gate, she thought. He’s gone.
The gate is open.
He will not come back. That gate must be closed.
All feeling froze. She was obsessed with the open gate. She could
be at peace only when she’d closed it.
She went out.
It was on her way back that she looked that way. Somebody was sitting on the verandah in the dark. Father!
From where he sat, he must have heard everything.
No one ate anything in the house that night. The children crawled up in different corners and eventually went to sleep.
Krishnankutty Menon continued to sit on the porch for quite some time. Finally when Sarada called him he got in and lay down.
The house did not shake off its funeral air even the next morning. The children were unusually quiet. No one seemed to have anything to say to the other.
It was around noon that Sarada came to think about the case which had been posted for the day. There would be trouble if she didn’t get a postponement. She changed her sari and hailed a rickshaw. She could not even think of riding to work that day.
She had to wait for quite some time before her case was called. It was three o’clock when she finally got a postponement for two weeks.
There was no rickshaw at the gate. If she were to send a peon to fetch her a rickshaw, she would have to go back into the building. She felt it would be better if she walked.
She joined the crowd on the road. Shops lined either side of the road. There were different kinds of sign boards. She saw them but nothing registered in her head. Her mind was somewhere else.
She turned into the lane and after passing two turns, reached the old jack tree. She turned back when she heard a sound behind her. Someone was getting off a bicycle.
‘Why did you leave early? I thought your hearing will not be over before four o’clock and I’d just slipped out for a while. When I got back you’d left. I came rushing after you on my bicycle. It was only by speeding madly that I managed to catch up with you. What was the hurry?’
‘I didn’t feel well, so I got a postponement.’ ‘You are not ill, are you? You were late too.’ ‘No, I’m not ill.’
After which, there was silence for a while. ‘Sarada!’ he said at last.
‘This is Monday.’
Her surprise was not feigned.
‘You don’t remember? One week is over. You promised to answer me today.’
She said nothing.
‘You forgot? Did you never even think about it?’ She really had forgotten. She’d kept turning it over in her mind for a week. For the past six days and six nights, all her waking and sleeping hours, this one thought had filled her mind.
But to day—when she had to give him an answer—she didn’t remember! She had to be reminded by him!
One picture kept pushing every other picture off the screen of her mind since last night. The son who walked out through the door and the father who sat in the dark, witnessing it.
‘Sarie!’ There was pain and remonstrance in his voice.
Still, she kept quiet. It was a nerve-racking weariness that she felt. She wanted to curl up somewhere, and close her eyes. She’d had enough. She wanted no more.
‘Yes or no? You have nothing to say?’
She exerted her will to retain her grip on her consciousness which was slipping toward darkness. She must give him an answer. She had to. What was the point in putting it off? She had to answer him some day. In that case, why not now? If she put it off, would it become less bitter?
Without lifting her eyes off the ground, she said, ‘This is not right.’ She could speak only those words.
As soon as they were out, she felt she’d known for sure every moment of the past one week, her answer finally would only have been this. All the while she’d been turning it over in her mind, she had known only too well that her answer could be no different; that she’d be forced to turn back at the threshold to a world of dreams.
‘Not right ? Why not?’ He was piqued. ‘I didn’t ask you whether it was right or not. I asked you whether you’d marry me or not.’
She said nothing.
‘Sarie!’ He said after a while. His voice was caressingly soft. ‘Look into my face and tell me. Don’t you love me, Sarie?’
Her eyes brimmed with tears, as, in that deserted lane, in a corner away from the bustle of the city, his beloved voice articulated the question for the first time ever. The man whom she loved was asking her tenderly: ‘Don’t you love me?’
In spite of herself, she raised her head. He stared into the moist depths of her eyes. He read whatever he wanted to learn in them.
The moments seemed to freeze.
‘Sarie!’ His voice was replete with all the tenderness in the world. ‘My Sarie!’
She closed her eyes. She felt that the sweetness of the moment was more than she could bear.
‘Sarie, we’re meant for each other.’ His voice went on. ‘There really is nothing to think over.’
There is nothing to think over. No need to do so either. She really can unburden everything and relax. Give everything over to his strong hands and relax.
Do I really have a right to them, she wondered.
The picture of her father sitting absolutely still, his head bent, on the verandah in the dark suddenly appeared before her eyes. Father!
The eldest son had left. How can the eldest daughter too leave after him? Shatter completely that feeble life?
Oh, if only everything would just blow up, this very day! He was waiting for her to say something.
Should I tear my flesh into bits myself, she asked herself.
What was the use of hesitating? ‘We should never become one.’ It was in a very firm voice that she got it out at last.
‘Why not?’ He got ready to battle it out once again. ‘I love you, Sarie. And you love me. Then, why not?’
‘I don’t deserve it.’
‘Isn’t that for me to say?’
‘No. we live in two different worlds. There’s another world much different from the one with which you are familiar. One which belongs to my father, mother and my people. That—‘
‘Suppose I’m willing to share it with you—‘ ‘You’ll never be able to come to terms with it.’
A labourer came up the path with a bundle of firewood on his head. Struggling with the load, he hardly paid them any notice.
When he had walked past them, he spoke again. ‘Why can’t I?
Where there is a will— ’ ‘Your father…’
‘There is no need to drag my father into this. As far as this is concerned, he doesn’t exist for me.’
‘So he too doesn’t approve.’
‘The question of his approval or the contrary does not arise. This is my life. I’ll do whatever I please with it.’
‘Don’t you have to live with him hereafter?’
‘Why? Isn’t that why I waited till I got a job? I can very well do without his money. I’ll stand on my own feet.’
‘Setting father and son at odds…’
‘There has to be some kind of relationship for that. Had my mother been alive, I would have thought twice before marrying someone whom she did not approve of. Where my father is concerned, I’ve no such qualms. For him, his son is another one of his assets—a live one. There’s no place for finer feelings there.’
‘My case is different,’ she spoke after a while.
‘I can not abandon them just as easily. Those who depend on
‘I’m not asking you to abandon them. Just because you throw your lot in with me, you needn’t stop helping them out.’
‘From Delhi, I…’
‘People do send money orders from Delhi, don’t they?’ ‘Shouldn’t they be willing to accept them?’
‘Do you mean to say they’ll not accept my money?’ She made no reply to that.
‘Sarie, you can find some work there, can’t you? Surely he’ll not refuse his daughter’s money?’
‘Wife of Damodara Panicker’s son!’ ‘The old tale!’
‘To my father it’s still fresh. He hasn’t forgotten it. If I were to do this, it would be more than he could bear.’
‘That’s meaningless.’ ‘Perhaps.’
‘Even if a person has such a feeling, is it right to destroy other people’s lives for it?’
‘Leave your father out of this. I want to know your view. Are you prepared to sacrifice your love for the sake of somebody else’s mistaken notions?’
‘There are seven children younger to me. No, six. There are only six now. He’s gone. He won’t come back. He told me to count him out. Yes, there are six. For those six…’
‘My brother. He walked out last night. He said before he left that he won’t come back.’
‘Why did he go?’
‘Said he couldn’t go on with this life that was choking him.’ ‘Yes, you shouldn’t let it choke your soul.’ After remaining silent
for a while, he spoke again. ‘Yes, the boy set out to live life as it should be lived. The path he’s taken is still open. Come away. ‘Don’t strangle your love. I tell you, come away!’
‘You can care for them even afterwards.’ ‘Father will not let me.’
‘That’s sheer stubbornness.’
‘Perhaps. That doesn’t make me love them less. They’ve no one but me. He walked out on them.’
‘Does my love mean nothing to you then, Sarie? You don’t set any store by it?’
‘Don’t set store by it!’ Her voice cracked.
He bit his lips. ‘I know, Sarie. You do love me. Don’t you think, that love is worth something? How can you trample over it like this? You live only once. How can you let others make a mess of your life?’
He paused for a while. ‘Look here. You adore children. Don’t you want a child of your own? To cherish, to take pains over its upbringing, to peg your dreams on…..’ His voice dropped till it was hardly a whisper.
Her own child—her son.
She stood looking down, relishing the sweet thought.
Her mind was in turmoil. One more word, and she’d have given
He paused, expecting at least some kind of gesture from her. But
since she made none, he continued, ‘They say that a woman’s life is complete only when she becomes a mother.’
Had he seen her face he would have said something different. She got her voice back.
‘To hurt other people to fulfil my life—‘
‘Whom do you hurt? Sisters and brothers! Those who have children are also supposed to look after them. Not a sister. That pack of brats…’
‘They are people whom I love, and you—‘ Suddenly she was angry. A pack of brats, indeed!
‘Namaste! I’ll leave you now.’ She turned away. A pack of brats, indeed! If he truly loved me, she kept thinking to herself, would he have spoken of them in that tone?
A pack of brats! She wasn’t walking home, she was almost running.
Pack, indeed! Are they not human enough? If only she could get home soon —a pack of brats, he’d said. If I don’t keep on chanting it to myself, she told herself, my anger will evaporate.
And that would make her burst into tears. It was anger that saved her from doing so. Imagine breaking down on the road!
Oh, Why doesn’t she reach home? Oh! Home at last!
The gate was open. No kids were in the yard. Somehow she got in and threw herself on to the bed.
Padmini brought her coffee even before she’d rested for a couple of minutes.
Now there wouldn’t be any peace.
‘I don’t want coffee right now. I’ll come and have it later.’ Sarada somehow got it out without raising her head.
Her sister was not convinced. She went and fetched her mother. ‘Why did you say you didn’t want your coffee, Ammu?’
This is the girl’s doing, Sarada thought, she has roped in mother. ‘I’ve a splitting headache, Amma,’ she said, pressing down with
her fingers on her temples. ‘If I have something I’ll be sick.’
Her mother was taken in by her flushed face and swollen eyes. ‘In that case, don’t have your coffee now. You can have it after
sometime. Let the pain subside a bit.’
After caressing her face and head, she went away. Sarada turned over to face the wall once again.
She had sought her bed because she was afraid that she’d break down and cry. Now she did not feel like crying. It was a kind of heaviness that she felt in her heart.
Her mother came back in ten minutes with desiccated ginger made into a paste with God alone knew what else.
‘Charu! Turn this way please! Let me spread this on your forehead.’
How could she refuse? Her mother applied the whole lot on her forehead.
‘Now close your eyes and try to rest. You’ll be all right soon. Then you can have something to eat.’
‘Let me get some sleep, Amma! I got this headache because I didn’t sleep well. If I don’t get up for dinner, don’t call me.’
‘You’ll be okay by dinner time.’
‘In case I am asleep, don’t wake me!’ ‘No. Go to sleep. I’ll close the door.’
Her mother covered her legs with a cloth and went out, closing the door softly.
She heard the children saying their prayers in a low voice. A little while later she heard them in the kitchen. They must have sat down to have their rice gruel.
One by one, they were making their way back. Someone opened the door.
‘Chechi is not well. Don’t make noise. Come and lie down quietly.’ Parootty had come to make the beds for the children. Quietly, without making any noise, she was shaking the beds out one by one and making them. Only she could manage to make the tattered beds without
pushing the cotton out.
‘What is wrong with Valyechi?’ said a hushed voice. It was Gopalankutty.
‘Headache. I told you to keep quiet, didn’t I? Come and lie down, everybody. Go to sleep soon.’ She went away just as quietly as she had come in.
The sound of even breathing filled the room.
She heard the sound of a dish falling in the kitchen, following which she heard mother’s voice. She was telling someone off. Must be Padmini. She heard the front door close. Father was going to bed after his dinner.
Somebody was standing near her bed. Amma was calling to her in a low voice.
‘Charu, don’t you want dinner, dear? Everyone had theirs.’ She spoke again, raising her voice slightly this time. She didn’t answer.
‘Don’t disturb her, mother. She told you not to call if she was asleep. She must have been too tired to stay awake. If you get her up now, the headache will get worse.’
It was Parootty. Everyone else must have gone to bed.
‘Go to bed on an empty stomach? Going without supper…’ ‘How do you eat when you have a headache?’
‘Supposing she wakes up hungry in the night?’
‘Aren’t I here? Don’t pour water in the rice and don’t set milk to curd. I’ll do it in the morning. If she feels like it, I can make her a cup of coffee in the night.’
‘Okay. And she did tell me not to call her. Anyway, keep a glass of cumin tea here. She just might go without a glass of water so as not to disturb you.’
Sarada heard the sound of dishes in the kitchen for some more time. Then she heard the kitchen door being closed.
Someone placed a glass on the window sill at the head of her cot.
It must be Parootty bringing her a glass of cumin tea. She heard sounds in the next room, for a brief while. Then they too stopped.
‘Go to bed, Amma! I’m here, aren’t I?’ ‘Hm… I’m going.’
She looked out through the window. Not a leaf moved.
The sky was just as empty as her heart was. Not even a single star.
The room felt unbearably stuffy and hot. She kept turning over in her bed.
Oh, will this never be over? Won’t the day break? The clock struck eleven in the house next door.
How many long hours more? Long hours. Long, interminable days.
Tomorrow would be just like this day. Day after tomorrow would be just the same too. No different, smouldering slowly. One who shattered her own happiness. One who perforce had to shatter it.
Why did this ray of light have to come into her life, to illumine for a fleeting moment, the realms of her dreams that lay steeped in darkness? Why did the curtain of black clouds lift for a moment to reveal a magic world enveloped in an aureole of light?
If I hadn’t come to know what radiance meant, she thought, I wouldn’t have resented darkness.
She had come away without even saying a nice word. May be she’ll never again get to meet him properly.
No. He will not come again.
Will he ever come to plead again for something which was denied him once?
No. He won’t.
There is nothing to hope for.
No one will wait for me by the corner of the lane with his twinkling eyes and the shock of hair falling lazily on to his forehead, she thought despairingly. No one will bid me farewell beneath the old jack tree.
There is nothing to wait for. Nothing at all.
A vast desert lay before her. With no hint of green anywhere. Oh, God, she cried silently, how long will I have to go on like this? The minutes kept crawling by. Were they minutes or aeons?
Strains of soft music wafted in, dissolving the frozen stillness of the room.
‘Suhani raat tal chuki. Na jaane tum kab aoge…’
A lonely sleepless lover seemed to have put on the gramophone. The song floated in, wave after wave, in a deep male voice.
It was midnight. The whole world slept.
The heart-rending sound came rippling in, through the numbing stillness and the darkness unrelieved even by the faint glimmer of the stars.
‘Suhani raaat tal chuki Na jaane tum kab aoge.’
The auspicious night is spent. I wonder when you will come. Familiar old song.
‘Na jaane tum kab aoge…’
Sarada could bear it no longer. She feared her rib cage would be crushed. She felt a great heaviness in her chest. She couldn’t breathe.
If I don’t get out of here, she thought, I’ll go mad.
She got up and, groping around in the dark, got the door open.
Nothing moved outside. There was not a ray of light. She stepped out into the courtyard. The heart-rending song went on.
Tears, held back for hours, streamed out. She threw herself down on the barren ground bereft even of a blade of grass, and sobbed.
The earth, all-seeing, all-knowing, received her sobs into her bosom dispassionately. The trees slept, heedless of the human heart that lay breaking at their feet. The sky lay under her dark blanket, not bothering to open her starry eyes.
When she heard a whisper from inside, Sarada held her sobs back. ‘Hush, baby! Hush…Hm…m….’ It was followed by a prolonged
Her mother. The baby was awake.
She listened to the wails mingle with a lullaby. ‘Hush…sh…’
She could hear footsteps. She must be pacing the room, carrying the child.
The hollow, ringing cough.
The children, poverty and hardship among them had gnawed away her health. She had been working the live-long day and now kept awake for her son. She never got rest. Will she ever get a moment’s quiet before the end?
The lullaby stopped.
She heard the prolonged cough once again. And the sound of her clearing her throat. It came from a little way off.
She must have gone up to the porch to clear her throat so as not to disturb the child.
She bore the cross that others had fashioned out of their follies and foibles. A life that had never known a moment’s comfort. Still she carried on. She was a mother. Since she’d borne children she must bring them up. She had no time to be sorry.
Indulge in her weakness in the presence of that mute pain? It was a sin to weep over the lamp that went out near someone for whom the darkness had never lifted and would never lift.
Weep? I have no right to, she reminded herself. Tears are a boon.
You have to earn them. You shouldn’t weep. You are not free to.
Pressing her chest to the ground, Sarada held her breath. If she heard a sound, her mother might go looking for her to see how her headache was.
No. She heard her going to bed. She must have thought her asleep. She got up.
The song was over by then.
She moved softly and stood leaning her head on the old pavizhamalli tree by the thulasi-thara. She heard someone cough once or twice in the room. Then pressed her forehead on the wilting branches of the pavizhamalli and closing her eyes stood there for a long time.
It was only when she heard a cock crow somewhere in the distance that she raised her head. The dawn was breaking in the east.
She walked back into the room. She closed the mortise lock quietly and went to bed.
Sarada got up before everyone else did and finished her bath. But when it was time to go to the court she didn’t because she simply didn’t feel like dressing up and going out anywhere.
She had made up her mind to go the next day. After having her food, she had even started out. But when she looked at her diary she found that no case had been posted for that day. She did not feel like going there. Changing her sari, she lay down on her bed. She spent the whole day in bed.
There was a letter for her in the evening post.
Her fingers shook as she opened the envelope. Just four or five lines. No clue as to the place and no salutation either.
‘If anything that I said hurt you, Sarie, forgive me. It was unintentional and was prompted by my pain.
I’m leaving this place today. I haven’t made up my mind about where to go. I need reach Delhi only by the end of next month. I’ve got to do something with my time till then, haven’t I?
Should you need me, all you have to do is drop me a word and I’ll
I will wait for you.’ And he had signed off.
So that’s the end of it all. Never to meet again! Hmm. That’s best
anyway. There’s nothing to wait for. Let the rainbow fade out just as it had appeared, slowly, on its own.
For a few days she moved around, keeping the very first — also the last – letter from her lover close to her bosom. She knew it by rote. Still she read it from time to time. That brought her a kind of relief.
The days and nights went crawling by. Days grew into weeks and weeks into months.
Sarada could no longer take an interest in anything. She seemed to be listless on the whole.
She felt that the first few days, when the wound was still raw and she still smarted under searing pain every moment, were preferable by far to these.
Immersing yourself in pain amounts to living, she told herself, to feel pain you must be alive.
During those days she had one more thing to see to. No one should come to know of the tempest that raged within her. No one should get an inkling of the fire that singed her heart. It took a lot of will to contain something which defied control within the confines of her mind. Even having to strive for something can bring you relief in itself.
Then the feeling in her unconscious mind that she was the one who let go of something well within reach might have increased her feeling of self worth. Could there be anything sweeter to the ego than the bitter pain you bring on yourself for someone else’s sake?
Thus there had been quite a few things helping her to hold her head high.
It was when the days crawled into months and only the excruciating pain, knocked about and worn out, lay across her heart like a dark shadow, leaving no space for bravado that she realized only too well that life had become meaningless for her.
Her mind had become numb. She lost interest in everyone and everything. She felt no love even towards her little brothers and sisters. She could no longer bring herself to cuddle them or take part in their games like she used to before. She no longer had the same regard for anyone at home. Instead of love, she could only feel compassion for them.
She had to pay with her love for the sacrifice she performed for their sakes.
She engaged herself rather mechanically in the chore of making a living for her family. She did everything from getting up in the morning to going to the courts but her mind was never in it.
Her father rarely, if ever, went out those days. It was Ramankutty who ran the newspaper single-handedly.
Her father got increasingly annoyed about his daughter who took no interest in the newspaper.
But she paid no heed to that. She had made up her mind not to have anything to do with the paper, notwithstanding what anyone had to say about it. It was a kind of revenge.
She began to feel irritated at the very mention of the newspaper. She regarded both the newspaper and Ramankutty who prolonged its death-throes as symbols of the forces that had blown out her life. Ramankutty had never willingly done anything to hurt her. Nevertheless she reserved for him the most bitter hatred which she could never afford
to expend on anyone else. He pretended not to be aware of her scornful behaviour. The more she tried to keep away from him the more he tried to get closer to her.
Krishnankutty Menon was laid up. When someone’s ill in the family, money will always be in short supply.
A large family had to live. The children had to be paid their fees.
Medicines had to be purchased.
And help in bringing out the newspaper which no one ever subscribed to.
Even in the past, Sarada had never managed to land any worthwhile law suits.
Who would trust a girl who looked so patently ineffectual, with a law suit? Anyway only accounts which required laborious checking or commissions which no one else was willing to touch came her way. But still she’d managed to eke out a living. But with her carelessness of the past eight months, she lost whatever little practice she had in the beginning.
People usually approached a woman lawyer thinking that though she had no oratorical skill to speak of, she would be intelligent enough to come up with a logic, take pains to study a case, etc. If she lacked diligence also along with glibness and bombast, who’d engage her services?
What with her father’s illness and the shortage of money, Sarada was compelled to take an interest in her work. It was only when she sat up and took notice that she realized the practice she’d so painstakingly built up was slowly fizzling out. If she had to start all over again at a job which she’d never liked to begin with—
Ramankutty was getting to be quite a pain in the neck. He asked her to write the editorials for him It was always do this, do that with him. He never left her alone once she was home. If she refused to oblige him, he’d go straight to her father. He knew she wouldn’t dare to disobey him. For the past three or four days, he had not left her father’s side.
They seemed to be discussing something seriously.
It was in the evening. Sarada was sitting alone on the southern verandah. The children had gone to the temple. Her mother and Parootty were in the kitchen.
Lost in thought, she sat still for a while, the newspaper lying forgotten in her lap. When she saw Ramankutty walking up to her from the front yard, she picked up the newspaper and started to read. He came up to her.
‘Are you reading the newspaper or just day-dreaming?’
She wanted to remind him that it was none of his business. She continued to read, not bothering to give him a reply. He sat down on the verandah beside her.
‘Why are you so silent these days, Sarie?’ Who was he to call her Sarie?
Someone had called her Sarie before. Oh, ages ago!
What right did this fellow have to call her so? ‘Are you angry with me by any chance?’
If she didn’t make a reply, he wouldn’t go away. ‘Angry? Why?’
‘Only you know the reason Sarie.’ She kept quiet.
‘Uncle and I were talking about you.’ ‘Oh?’
‘Uncle says we should get it over with as soon as possible.’ ‘Get over with what?’
‘Do I have to spell it out for you? As if you didn’t know! Poor thing!’
He gave a foolish grin.
Oh, Devi! That she had to endure his antics too! Trying to flirt with her, the nuisance!
‘Uncle is easily tired these days,’ he started again. ‘He’s getting old, isn’t he? Naturally, you can’t expect him to live forever. I think he has a feeling that he won’t get any better. Since he’s not well, let him at least have this one relief. Where’s the need to put this off any longer?’
‘What relief? Put off what?’
‘You will have me spell it out for you, won’t you? You little liar!’ ‘If you have something to say, please get it out. We’ll have the
humour later on.’
‘Pray, do not be angry.’ He tried to laugh. ‘It’s this thing about our getting married. What else can it be?’
‘What exactly does that ‘our’ mean? ‘You and me. Who else?’
‘You can leave me out of this. You need bother only about yourself.’ ‘How can that be? How can I get on with this on my own? This is
not something you can do on your own.’ ‘Find someone else.’
‘Why should I now? Sarie…’ ‘Forget about it. That’s impossible.’ ‘Why should it be?’
‘It’s impossible. That’s why.’
‘There ought to be a reason. Let’s have it.’
‘There’s no reason. I’m not marrying anyone right now. That’s all there’s to it.’
‘You mean to say you’ll never marry? ‘Yes.’
‘A lot of women have said that . And do you think they are all spinsters now?’
‘This woman is determined to remain so.’
‘Suppose your father has something quite different in mind for
‘This is something which uncle has always had in his mind.’ He
changed his tone to one you would use when you reason with children and began, ‘Do you think your father will be pleased if you tell him that you won’t agree to this?’
‘This has never been decided before. And in any case, this is not something that you do to please your father.’
‘Is it because you just do not like me in particular or do you mean to marry no one?’ He spoke after a few minutes of silence.
‘I told you in the beginning. I don’t want to get married.’ ‘No? Even if it’s Bhaskara Menon of Elanjiparambil?’ ‘Oh?’ She was shocked. ‘What did you say?’
‘I said, will you agree to get married if it’s Damodara Panicker’s son Bhaskara Menon? If it were lawyer Bhaskara Menon in my place would you say you don’t want to marry at all?’
She rose to her feet. Sparks seemed to fly from her eyes.
He was still not prepared to stop. He too rose to his feet. ‘Do you think that no one has come to know of all that chatting in the lane and flirting under the jack tree? It’s common knowledge now. And the cat thought no one would know if it lapped up the milk with its eyes shut.’
‘Stop it! Don’t say a word more.’
She could say no more. She was trembling from head to foot.
She turned and, going into her room, slammed the door shut. She sat on the cot but couldn’t keep still for long. So she got up and paced the room five or six times.
So he had the nerve to say that!
He even sullied the memories that lay dormant in the recesses of her heart. The nerd!
He dared to tread where he had no right to! Common knowledge, indeed!
Was it true that merciless eyes had witnessed the rainbow appearing on her sky and fading behind the clouds?
No. He’s lying. She’d have come to know if it had been common knowledge. She’d been treading the same road all these months, hadn’t she?
He is lying. He must have found out by chance. Now he’s pretending that it’s common knowledge.
Now everyone might come to know because he was sure to talk. That was certain. And he was the type. He parted on bad terms too. He was sure to talk. He would fill the place with it. He might even take it to father. Lord! This too on top of his illness!
The day passed off with no further developments. Ramankutty did not venture to talk to her again. It was around eight o’clock in the evening the next day. The children were pouring over their books on the porch after dinner.
Mother came and said to her, ‘Charu, Father wants you.’
Giving it no thought, she went over to him and stood near the cot. Her father lay with his eyes closed.
‘Did you call me, father?’ She spoke quietly after a brief silence. He opened his eyes.
‘Draw up that stool and sit by me.’ She obeyed him.
He did not begin immediately. He cleared his throat a couple of times. Then he said very softly, ‘Ramankutty tells me that you don’t bother with the newspaper these days.’
She kept quiet.
‘I don’t keep well these days, Ammu. Now it’s for you to run everything.’
She made no reply to that too.
‘I couldn’t finish anything that I ever began. There’s only you to run the paper now. You are intelligent enough. I gave you the education. That’s why I made you do B.L. You have to achieve whatever I could not. You can. I know that.’
After a brief pause, he continued, ‘You possess a man’s brain. But a brain is not enough. To run the show, you need a man behind you. It’s all very well to talk about equality. It takes a man to do things which need brawn. You know what I’m driving at?’
She wanted to say ‘No’ but she said just ‘hm.’ ‘I know you are sharp enough to get my drift.’ He lay quiet, as if lost in some thought.
‘Ramankutty isn’t smart enough. He cannot get anything done on his own. But he’ll do as he is told. You only have to tell him what. He’ll pull it off. If you put your mind to it the newspaper wouldn’t go to the dogs like this. I can no longer run these things. It’s upto you now. You must get him to run it.’
Her anger kept mounting. She could have borne it had he told her, ‘Take care of the younger children.’ It was not that. He wasn’t worried about bringing them up at all. He was still thinking about politics. Politics! What politics? It was all an ego trip. Whatever you started runs aground, it’s a shame. It lowers your self esteem.
What if your children starve? Your pride is intact! Her eyes rested briefly on the gaunt face.
Shame, she told herself, you are losing your temper with someone who could not raise himself. And he had hypertension. He must not be disturbed.
‘I’ll see to the newspaper,’ she answered quickly. ‘I knew you would. You’ve always listened to me.’
Her only thought was to get away soon. She wanted to slip out before he started on some other topic. But how could she, without being dismissed? Still….
‘I must send Ramankutty to fix up an auspicious day,’ her father said, as if speaking his thoughts aloud. She panicked.
‘Why an auspicious day?’
‘Whatever people might say, you should never do anything without paying attention to these things. Let him consult Astrologer Embranthiri. He’s good.’
‘What’s this auspicious day for?’
‘You’ve got to conduct a wedding like everybody else does, haven’t you? We must find an auspicious time. Don’t you worry about all that. I’ll see to everything. Ask Ramankutty to meet me. I’ll get everything fixed without stirring myself.’
Lord! Everything’s going to be a mess. If she kept quiet now to spare his pain, she’ll get herself into deeper trouble later on.
‘Father, who spoke of marriage here? I don’t see why you should have an auspicious time fixed.’
‘Eh? Who spoke of marriage, is that what you said? In that case what did you speak of a little while ago?’
‘I said I’d see to the newspaper.’
‘Yes, that’s it. Can you run the newspaper without Ramankutty’s
‘May be not. Well, I don’t know. In that case, between us, we’ll run
it. Just as it is being run now.’
‘That’s impossible. Once I’m gone, it wouldn’t be a nice thing for you young people to move about closely like this. That’s sure to lead to trouble.’
‘No, it won’t.’
‘Even if it doesn’t, this arrangement will not work out for long. He’s sure to get married some day. Then will he help you run the newspaper if his wife tells him not to?’
‘Be that as it may, but please don’t ask me to do this, father. I can’t.’ ‘Why not? What wrong has he done?’
‘Nothing, but I cannot marry him. That’s all.’
‘There has to be a reason. Isn’t he educated enough? At any rate, he’s done his B.A.’
‘No, not that he’s not educated enough.’ ‘Then tell me what’s wrong with him.’ ‘Nothing perhaps.’
‘Nothing perhaps, she says A very satisfactory response!’ ‘Then what do you expect me to say?’
‘Why do you refuse? There’s nothing much wrong with him. You too admit that. And you need him if you are to get anything done. You certainly cannot do without him. That’s another fact. And he says he’s wiling to marry you. Why don’t you agree?’
She made no reply.
As if the newspaper was a good enough reason for getting married! ‘Charu, why don’t you try to understand?’
‘It’s not that I don’t, father. But I cannot marry him.’
Closing his eyes, he continued to lie for some more time. Sarada waited with bated breath.
He opened his eyes at last. ‘Do you have someone else in mind, Charu?’
‘No.’ That was one question she could honestly answer in the negative.
‘Are you in love with someone?’ She made no reply to that.
‘Are you in love with someone for you to refuse Ramankutty so categorically?’
‘I only said I didn’t want to marry.’
‘You didn’t say so to begin with. Even so, that’s an absurd reason to offer. It’s childish. It’s foolish to offer such a lame excuse to your own father after you’ve come to realize the desirability of such an alliance.’
She had nothing to say.
‘Wouldn’t do if you keep mum. This is no joke.’ She still did not speak.
‘You have nothing to say? I’ll ask you the same thing once again: Are you in love with someone else?’
‘Yes.’ Her voice was firm. She had reached the end of her tether. If he were bent upon making her come out with it, let him have it. The blighter must have told him. The only question was, how much.
‘Who’s the person?’
‘That’s beside the point. I’m not going to marry him. Isn’t that enough for you?’
‘That’s for me to say. Tell me who it is.’ ‘I won’t.’
‘Don’t make me take his name.’
‘Eh…You…So, what that lad said was true? I very nearly slapped him. Charu…you…’
‘Is it true? Is that blighter’s son your…’ ‘Father!’
‘So that’s how it is, is it? So you could do this to me. The son of the man who ruined my life….’
‘But I told you I won’t marry him.’ ‘So you did.’
‘Yes. I did. But that isn’t enough for you. I ruined everything. I willingly sacrificed two lives. Still it’s not enough. Oh, God! I buried my love for their sake. Why blame them? I did it for the sake of just one person’s pride. Yours.’
‘You made me say it.’ ‘For my pride…’ ‘Father!’
‘Go! Get out of my sight!’
He turned over in his bed to face the wall. She waited for a while.
Then she went quietly out.
Around eleven in the night, her mother came to where Sarada lay and called her. She was awake.
Father was in a very bad condition. He had severe chest pain. She ran to his room.
He lay with his eyes closed. There was only a slight intermittent
Her mother had got Ramankutty up too. He was immediately sent
to fetch the doctor.
By then Parootty too got up and joined them. One by one, the other children followed. Even Gopalankutty.
The children, dazed with sleep, looked on. No one spoke.
Her mother and Parootty began to massage his legs. For a while, Padmini stood still, looking on. Then she got hold of a fan, moved to the cot and began to fan him, without being told.
Sarada alone stood stock still near the bed, never taking her eyes off the occupant’s face. Even her lips were ashen.
Only once did the sick man open his eyes. For a moment, his gaze lingered on Sarada’s face. He closed his eyes immediately.
He never opened them again.
Everything was over even before the doctor arrived.
The weeping and wailing started. The eldest daughter had no tears. When he was dying she didn’t dare even to touch him. Now her eyes refused to weep.
Seven or eight months later, one Sunday after sundown, a tall, thin young man came along the lane, turning past the old jack tree. When he reached the old iron gate, he stood still.
An old man with his body smeared with holy ash was on his way to the temple. There was no one else around. The young man stood looking at the closed gate for some time and then crossed over to the other side. He took a few steps past the gate. Then he stood still as if lost in some thought.
The old man stopped on his way and studied the young man for a short while.
‘Lost your way?’ He approached him at last.
‘Oh, no!’ The young man came out of his thoughts. ‘I wondered since you seemed to hesitate.’
‘I haven’t lost my way. In fact I came out for a walk. I stopped here because the place is familiar to me. That’s all.’
‘You have acquaintances in that house?’
The old man was not willing to leave him alone. ‘Ah, yes, I know someone.’
‘Whom do you mean? There is an elder and a younger brother.’ He was happy to have someone to talk to.
‘Neither the elder nor the younger. I know the lawyer’. ‘Lawyer? There is no lawyer there.’
‘How can that be? A woman—’
‘There are no women at all in the house. Both of them are bachelors.’ ‘I’m talking about the house with the tin gate. Saradamma…’ ‘Oh, that’s it. You mean Saradakutty? Yes. She had indeed studied
law. I thought you meant the present tenants of the house.’
‘Present tenants? Doesn’t she stay here any longer? Where did Saradamma go? Did they move house?’
‘Move house? Don’t you belong to this place?’ ‘I do. But I’ve been away for a while.’
‘You are coming from a long way off?’
‘Yes I only landed today. As for Saradamma-‘
‘She was a nice girl. Not high and mighty like some of these educated girls.’
‘Tell me where is she now?’ His patience was wearing thin. ‘I heard she was in jail in Goa or some place.’
‘In jail?’ The young man was shocked.
‘Yes, she was a nice girl with a heart of gold but when he died-’ ‘Who died?’
‘That Krishnankutty Menon. The children’s father.’ ‘He died?’
‘Yes. It’s really a year now. The girl got sort of queer after his death. If you ask me, I can’t put my finger on it — something went wrong with her. It was then that some folks left boarding a train for a satyagraha in Goa or Portugal or wherever. She just left with them. Her mother and everyone else came to know of it only after she’d left. They wailed as if there’d been a death in the house. They had only this girl to tide them over. And of late she had no practice to speak of. Still it was better than nothing. When she too left, they were in real trouble. There was a chap who was Menon’s nephew. Once Saradakutty left, he never bothered about them. They stayed on for a while, selling this and that and somehow pulling on. They left when they could no longer fend off creditors. After that there has been no news of them.’ The old man stopped. It was when he received no response that he observed the other man’s face.
‘What’s wrong with you, mister?’
‘Nothing. See you later.’
‘No. Wait. When I look at you—you seem to be —are they related to you?’
‘What? Ah, yes. They are. See you!’