Nirmala quickly pulled her hand away. The papers slipped out of his hands and fell on the table with a “pish” sound. She quietly picked them up and rose to her feet.
‘Well, get those changes made.’ ‘Yes.’
She stepped out of the room. The half-door closed behind her. Oh, damn, she thought, I shouldn’t have pulled my hands away like that. He must have caught on.
Shame on you…..!
Mother of a seven year old boy and still….shame on you! She sat down before the microscope.
She could hear Bhaskaran humming a tune in the next room. He must have stumbled upon something worthwhile. Or he wouldn’t sing. He’s a good chap, Bhaskaran. He and his white mice, insulin doses and Hindi songs. No other problems. He’s destined to go up. And he knows that himself. Moreover, he is young.
Youth – when you are young there’s no problem you can’t solve.
He must be twenty or twenty – two, and ready to take on anything.
Like him, I too –
Damn! There was no need for that little scene in the Director’s room. Forget it.
She took out a bottle or two containing mite from the incubator.
If only I could involve myself totally in my work like Bhaskaran does… But how can I, with all these problems?
Even otherwise how can I, who turned to research because I had nothing else to do for three years when my husband went abroad, ever hope to be on par with him?
It was Ravi’s acquaintance with a Mr. Verghese who was on the Board that landed me this scholarship.
I might have done something worthwhile if I had landed here, like this fellow Bhaskaran, fresh after my exams. Well, what can you expect if you start out after having managed a house for eight years and forgotten everything you ever knew?
What would I have done, if I didn’t have even this? With Rajiv in the boarding school and Ravi in England, if I didn’t have even this to hold on to, I….
‘Are you busy, Mrs. Panikker?’ Thomas came in from the verandah. ‘Oh, no! I’m not.’
‘Bhaskaran is singing away.’
‘He’s been singing all the time. Great excitement.’
‘He should never have opted for Marine Biology instead of Micro- Biology.’
‘He’ll be done with this soon. He’s done enough work to submit his thesis. After which, he’s sure to land a nice job.’
‘That’ll be the end of it, ‘said Thomas. ‘Look at me! My teachers too had sent me off, saying I would come up.’
‘I don’t see what you’ve got to complain about, Mr. Thomas.’
‘I really am not doing anything now – no research, nothing. The stipend is much more than what I’d get in the college .That’s why I’m here in the first place. And, why not put in three years here like this?’
‘Ousep! Bring the coffee over here,’ he called out into the verandah. ‘I had ordered coffee. Let’s have it here, shall we?’
‘Ousep, will you please ask Krishnankutty and Unni Menon over here too? Hey! Pakkara! If you want your coffee, come over here.’
‘Thommi chetta, aren’t you my very own Thommi chettan? Will you please send it over here? I really can’t come over there now,’ Bhaskaran called from inside.
‘In that case, you can go without it.’
‘Please, Mrs. Panikker, will you tell them to bring it over here?’
She poured the coffee into a beaker and carried it over to where Bhaskaran sat huddled over the microscope. He lapsed into Tamil to thank her.
She closed the door and left. Why disturb the fellow by staying to chat with him. The other three had pulled up stools from somewhere and were seated round the table.
‘You must serve the coffee, Mrs. Panikker.’ She poured the coffee into four beakers.
‘Mrs. Panikker, did you show him your paper?’ Thomas asked, in between sips of coffee.
‘What did he say about it?’
‘He wanted a few changes made in it. That German journal we subscribe to – he said a paper relating to this had appeared in it in fifty- eight. He told me to look it up.’
‘Well, you must grant him one thing. The man knows his subject.’ ‘That’s true.’ Unni Menon agreed with Thomas.
‘And if there’s anything the fellow doesn’t know, it’s not worth knowing either.’
‘Mephistopheles.’ That was Krishnankutty’s contribution. ‘Who can that be?’ Thomas wanted to know.
‘He took Krishnankutty to task yesterday, didn’t he?’ Unni Menon laughed, ‘Didn’t you know, Thomas? Krishnankutty’s theory on the evolution of Protozoa – he killed it and buried it yesterday.’
‘Oh, leave it,’ Krishnankutty was provoked into saying. ‘This has nothing to do with his views on my paper. He told me what was wrong with my paper and I was convinced. So that’s not the reason. He is rotten, doesn’t have a conscience. Satan!’
‘Dark….Sinister….Will you stop Krishnankutty! Your Protozoa theory was no good anyway.’
‘Leave that out of this, Menon,’ Thomas came to Krishnankutty’s rescue. ‘He is bad. He thinks only of himself.’
‘Everybody else is into Sarvodaya,’ Unni Menon was just not prepared to give in.
‘Others will at least have a wife and a couple of kids to worry about. He doesn’t even have those. No family, nothing. Single. Cares only about his pleasure.’
‘Isn’t he about forty?’ Krishnankutty wondered.
‘Of course. It’s seven or eight years since he’s been here.’ ‘He doesn’t look that old.’
‘Mrs.Panikker, have you seen his bungalow?’ Thomas turned to
‘No, I haven’t.’
‘First rate building – tennis court, swimming pool, Alsatian dogs.
‘You won’t catch him sober after dark.’ Krishnankutty said.
‘I don’t think Mrs. Panikker will relish this talk.’ Unni Menon wanted to stop the discussion.
‘It’s alright. Don’t mind me.’
‘He’s tough, Mrs. Panikker, tough to the core.’
Satan – did he deliberately take the paper – what a shame anyway! When she returned to the YWCA, in the evening, a letter bearing
Rajiv’s school seal was waiting for her.
‘Dear Mrs. Panikker….’ That was the superintendent’s letter, the report that she sends twice every month. Rajiv’s brief note was also there.
‘My dear Mummy,’ he wrote in English,
‘Got your letter. Thanks, I am all right. How are you? I had a letter from father. He sent me three stamps. Have you got stamps?’
Yours affly, Rajiv Panikker’
The paper had straight lines made on it with a ruler to help him write neatly. She must have sat with him while he wrote it. Rajiv – before he was born she had wanted a girl and had even decided to call her ‘Chitra’.
She must somehow manage to get him stamps. The Director had received a letter from Finland only the day before. He said he had received a letter from a Professor in Helsinki.
If she asked him, he might give her the stamps. He keeps getting letters from all over. Wasn’t it only last year that he went on a tour of Europe?
Damn! The Director –
So it’s back to him after drifting around. Mephistopheles….dark…..sinister…… Two weeks went by.
She didn’t ask him for the stamps. Unni Menon’s brother works in Ceylon. He gave her a couple of worthless stamps. She sent them to her son.
Every time she went into his room, she’d see the envelope with the Finnish stamps among a heap of papers in a corner of the room.
‘You don’t need it,’ she wanted to say. ‘Can I have it so that I can send it to my son?’ But somehow, she didn’t have the nerve to ask.
She didn’t even relish going into his room.
The smell of expensive, imported cigarettes that permeated the room. The way he sat beneath the whirring ceiling fan, his hair falling carelessly forward. The never ending roar of the sea in the background–
Once inside, you always got the feeling that you were somewhere far away from other human beings. You felt uneasy till you got out. And you couldn’t do without going into his room at least once or twice a day. You’ve got to consult him, haven’t you?
You’ve got to get things done. Or was it just that…?
Two weeks went by – what with Hindi songs from Bhaskaran and small talk from the others.
She was beginning to give herself up to the wonder of watching the mites grow and multiply.
She prepared five or six good slides.
When she showed him the diagrams, he wanted to see the slides. She walked to her cabin with him following behind.
Bhaskaran was not in. The other three shared a bigger cabin at the other end. Her cabin couldn’t be seen from there. She mounted the slides one by one. After the fifth, she mounted the sixth, and raised her head a moment too late, precisely when he lowered his.
A gentle collision.
Blood rushed to her face.
A few minutes later, when she looked up, he was rubbing the spot. It didn’t hurt her much, so it shouldn’t have hurt him either.
‘I am sorry,’ he said. Then he smiled.
There was no regret in that smile. She lowered her head again.
‘Very good. Congratulations!’ He was preparing to leave after having examined the sixth.
She did not speak.
She felt the spot where his head made contact burning.
She heard Thomas’ voice from the verandah. He was coming that
She couldn’t meet anyone just then.
She hurried into the verandah on the other side.
When she had gone down a couple of stairs she calmed down. On the ground floor, Kittan rose to his feet to greet her. He was on
friendly terms with her. He seemed to have a feeling that those who did research on the first floor were required to drop in on the fish on the ground floor too.
It was in the darkness inside that she felt normal once again. There was a crowd. She tagged on to the tail end of the queue.
She had watched those gold fish and sea snakes umpteen times. Does the spot where my head bumped his, glow inthe darkness,
she wondered. Is there anything on my face that screams– ‘Look at this woman, she’s different from ordinary women. Despite having a husband and a son, in her heart she has another–’
Where was she going ?
The two turtles must have fought between themselves as usual. The glass case was full of blood. Turtles, she felt like saying, you don’t have problems like us human beings, then why–
She tried to linger but reached the exit too soon. Should she go out? Or take another round?
Kittan opened the door to let in another group of people. She went out. What shall I do, she mused, go back to that microscope?
No. She stepped out into the yard. It was only three in the afternoon. The sun was still blazing. There will be no shade on the beach. Never mind. A gang which looked like college kids hung out in the shade of a grounded country boat, munching peanuts.
She sat in the shade of another boat.
She remembered another time when she had sat in the same place under an umbrella in the scorching sun. Ravi had been with her then.
Trouble was brewing at home. Ravi sent a note saying he wanted to meet her. She was the one who fixed the time. And she went too. What nerve she had in those days!
The result of all that daring and pigheadedness– she stood firm till she was allowed to marry him. If she hadn’t been so stubborn–
If her sister-in-law hadn’t returned from her confinement and spoken disparagingly of Ravi, would she have stood firm?
‘He is the son of a nellukuthukari. I don’t approve of this,’ her chettathiyamma had said. Even Ravi’s grandmother, she claimed, had been their servant.
She made it very clear that she would never ever let her marry him. And that was what made her obstinate. Who was her sister-in-law to say yes or no? One’s parents had the right. They were no more. And, as for her elder brothers and their wives, she knew only too well how much they cared. They absolutely had no right to talk. As a matter of fact, she had been actuated more by her resentment towards them than by anything else.
Ravi had been staying in a lodge next door. She had seen him, but had never even spoken to him. It was just like any other proposal of marriage. There was nothing special about it. If that particular chettathiyamma hadn’t seen fit to interfere, it might not even have worked out. She hadn’t been particular about it till then. When she heard her chettathiyamma’s words she made up her mind to marry him.
She had gone to her valiyettan’s room and spoken to him: ‘You had better decide in favour of this. Or I might go with him.’ The words might not have been the same but the general idea was the same.
It was on the previous day that she had come over here in answer to Ravi’s request and sat talking to him.
After having spent close to two hours here on the deserted beach at noon, talking and planning, Ravi hadn’t so much as touched a strand of her hair. And it was to him that she was — Oh God! she thought, where am I going ?
She had never had any special feelings towards Ravi, either at that time or now.
Stubbornness on one side and respect and regard on another. With Ravi she had never felt this difficulty to meet his eye or anything.
Eight years of marriage. A seven—year—old son. And now—
Simply because a man had wavy hair—or because he had big eyes streaked with red at the corners under thick eyebrows that threatened to meet in the middle—or because his moustache looked attractive on his dark face—or because he knew how to smile, revealing a row of small, even teeth—or because he had long, slender fingers—or because he appeared to be strong as steel—
It wasn’t as though she had been an akathamma, living in seclusion, without meeting men.
How very frequently had she played mixed doubles, attended parties in the company of men. Yet—
Frailties of middle age…aberrations of fading youth. But I’m not middle-aged yet—
Fading youth—but the mirror doesn’t say so. God, what a trial!
If only I had father, mother and a home—
Couldn’t I have set up home in these eight years? That wasn’t what I did. I tried to be a society lady.
I wanted the best family quarter in the whole company—the prettiest cushions—kitchen in the latest fashion—tried to dress better than anyone else—to be modern —parties every evening—the club—tennis—
Since my son had to be brought up to be modern, I spent a large sum every month and packed him off to a boarding school.
Except for all this, I never set up a proper home. Now that Ravi is in England and Rajiv in Bangalore.
What a comedown…
What was the point in sitting here? Ousep had to leave, after locking up the place.
She rose to her feet and walked back. She climbed the stairs noiselessly. After locking everything up, she got her umbrella and left the room. Only Bhaskaran saw her. He wasn’t in the habit of asking questions.
The hostel was only a few minutes’ walk from the bus stop. There was a stationery store in between. She saw it every day. She went into the shop.
‘Do you have a picture frame that you can keep on the table?’ It didn’t take long to find a suitable one.
Back in her room, even before she changed her sari, she took the album out of the suitcase.
The one taken when Ravi was about to leave would do: all three of them were there.
She removed the photograph from the album. Inserting it into the frame, she placed it on the table so that she could see it from her bed. Yes, she told herself, these are the faces that I should see first thing in the morning and last in the night before I went to bed.
They were the men in her life.
She didn’t go to work the next day. She sent her application for
How long shall I keep away like this, she thought, and what was
the point in keeping away?
However much she tried, her thoughts kept returning to the same
She went back the next day. He sent someone to ask her over to his
room. He was very matter of fact. And extremely courteous too.
Still more days went by.
Once she arrived in the morning her attention was focused on one
Was that the sound of his car? Most of the days the place would be
noisy with the cars of the visitors who came to watch the fish.
But in any commotion she could always tell his car from the others by its horn. She could even make out the sound of its door closing.
He used to drive it himself. As soon as he drove in, Ousep would run up to meet him. There would be files and books on the rear seat. His room was at the other end, next to the staircase. She couldn’t hear him going up. She could only make out from the sound of the car whether he had arrived or not. Sometimes he would turn up late, at eleven or half past eleven. And she would be distracted till then.
Then she simply had to go to his room on some pretext or other.
One day he was on leave. It was on that day that she realized how far gone she was.
Ten thirty…eleven thirty…no sign of the man. She couldn’t hold on any longer.
Whom do I ask, to find out what is the matter with him, she wondered.
Did he come in early? Did I miss him? She went up to his room. No. The door was locked. On her way back she met Ousep in the verandah. He might know.
‘Ousep, hasn’t the Director come?’ ‘No, he hasn’t. He’s not keeping well.’ ‘Is it anything serious?’
‘Oh, no! Just a cold. That’s all.’
Even though she stayed till four, it was no good. Work gets done only if you can keep your mind on it.
She went back to the hostel and, taking the photograph with Ravi and Rajiv, placed it on her lap and kept staring at it a long while.
This was not the one that should have been kept on the table. It was taken just before he left — after he had put on weight — after he had lost half his hair to baldness. The wedding photo would have been better. In that Ravi—
She removed the photograph from the album. It was only after she had replaced the photograph in the frame with her wedding photograph that she remembered—it didn’t have Rajiv. She selected a good snap of his and inserted it into a corner of the frame over the other one.
She placed the frame on the table and spreading her letter pad before it, sat down to write to Ravi. She wrote in English,
‘Dear darling of my heart,’ What do I write to him?
Do I write, ‘I am so infatuated with a man that I can not hold out against him. It’s not that I haven’t tried, Ravi. It’s as though the very ground under my feet is being swept away?’
Or do I write, ‘ Darling, please come. I long to see you?’ Ravi will not come.
‘Nimmi, it’s easy for you to say. It’ll cost me two thousand rupees to get there. How’ll I ever raise it? As it is I can only just about meet Rajiv’s expenses.
How can you be so childish? What a whim! You were never very balanced. Keep yourself occupied, body and mind. Then you won’t have time to think up these crazy ideas.’
That would be the tone of his reply. Ravi was the kind of person who wrote once a week, at an appointed time on Sunday evenings, to his wife.
No. There will be no help from that quarter. Days went by.
There were times when she would think why she alone should be so upset. She knew that many of her acquaintances has such affairs as this.
When your husband is two thousand miles away, alone… If he were in the habit of chasing other women…
Her seven year old son—
Eight years from now, he…God! It was a Saturday.
Bhaskaran had gone to Delhi as a delegate to the Science Congress.
Thomas had not returned in the afternoon. The other two were busy in their cabins.
She went to the Director’s room to clear a doubt. He was alone.
Drawing a picture, he explained it to her. Placing a hand on top of the table, she leaned over the table to see better.
Suddenly, she noticed that his voice had trailed off. She didn’t raise her head.
His left hand was resting idly on the table a little away from where she had placed her own for support.
Dark, slender fingers.
“A five-headed serpent.”
Suddenly, his hand closed over her fair, plump hand. Without her volition, her hand turned palm up.
Her soft fingers were crushed in his powerful grip for a moment.
Then she jerked her hand away and ran out.
She met no one even when she ran down the stairs.
Without raising her head, she made her way through the crowd below to the road.
There was a bus waiting. As soon as she got in, it started to move.
Listening to the roaring sea breeze, she cradled her head in her hand and huddled into a corner of the seat.
She woke up well past her destination and had to walk back.
As she closed the door securely behind her, she heard the clock striking four. She paced the room for a long, long time.
She heard a song being played loudly from the theatre nearby. The matinee show was over. She went to the table and hugging the frame that held the photographs of her son and husband, knelt down. My son, she cried, only you can save me!
Taking her suitcase, she placed it on the bed. She stuffed a couple of sarees and blouses into it. The train was at six thirty. She would catch it only if she hurried.
She’d been paid her stipend only the day before. Thank God! She had money in her bag. She locked her room and went looking for the matron to leave the key with her.
She was in the front yard.
‘I am going to Bangalore. I couldn’t meet Miss George. Will you inform her? If I’m late, I’ll miss the train.’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I got a letter from my son. He’s not well.’
Those who were standing around collected round her. ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘How is he?’
My son, may you have no illness!
‘No, he’s not all that bad. But he wrote he’d like me to go over. He’s all alone there, isn’t he? See you. If I don’t hurry, I’ll miss the train’.
‘You could have asked Mathai to carry our case.’ ‘Oh, I didn’t think of it.’
Mathai came running from where he had been watering the garden. ‘Hey, take this suitcase. And go to the station with her, please.’
The train was about to leave. Having bought the ticket she boarded a ladies’ compartment. And the train pulled out.
She huddled into a corner. A woman in the opposite seat, happy to have found a prey, started talking to her. Her son was studying in a boarding school in Bangalore. She was going to meet him. It would be enough if she told her just that.
‘Is he in college?’ ‘No..’
‘School kid! Will he stay on his own, without seeing his mother?
How old is he?’
‘Seven? My Kuttappan when he was seven, wouldn’t go to bed on his own’.
She wanted to tell her, ‘This is not your Kuttappan, but my Rajiv,’ but she did not. She just smiled.
‘Is your husband with you?’ ‘No.’
‘You are alone?’ ‘Yes.’
‘I suppose it is okay, once you get used to it.’ She kept quiet.
‘What is he?’
‘He isn’t here. He’s in England.’ ‘England?’
‘Yes.’ ‘Working?’ ‘He’s studying.’
‘Oh, so you are staying alone, having seen off your husband and son to different places?’
That’s exactly what I am doing. Oh God, this woman— ‘Where are you staying here? With your mother may be?’
On the final day of judgment, when, like this, you’d be required to answer before that ruthless judge—when you’d be required to settle all accounts, balancing debit and credit —
The train stopped. Somebody else entered the compartment and occupied the next seat. The questionnaire came to be directed towards her. Fine, She’s been let off.
Or, has she really been?
When the woman kept asking questions, her whole mind was busy thinking up answers to them. She had no time to worry about anything else.
There were no more questions. And the tempest started to rage in her mind once again.
She felt strangely calm for a short while when at an unearthly hour she had to disembark at Trichy and board another train.
Unfamiliar place. It was night. She needed to remain alert. There simply was no room for idle thoughts. The train was so crowded so she had to stand till a few people got off two stations further on to get a seat. She opened her eyes to the realization that she was hungry. The morning was well advanced. She hadn’t eaten anything since the
The thought that she was nearing the safety of her son’s presence made her think of food. She rose to her feet. The crowd had thinned. She’d not packed her tooth brush and paste. She had forgotten everything.
She washed her face and with great difficulty managed to order a cup of coffee and a couple of dosas.
There was no one who spoke Malayalam in the compartment. She wished she could talk to somebody. There was no one. The place was teeming with Tamil and Kannadiga women in gaudy sarees.
She was left alone with her thoughts.
It was nearly noon when the train reached Bangalore. Taking her handbag in one hand and lugging the suitcase with the other, she walked out of the station.
She took an auto to her son’s school. She was driven to the school building first. The children were in the boarding for the break.
By the time she located the building and got the gate keeper to find the matron, the bell rang.
Will he be gone? Won’t she see him now? She had to wait for fifteen minutes in the parlour before the matron turned up.
She agreed to call the child only when she insisted it was urgent and she had to meet him straightaway.
She was getting tired of waiting when he finally turned up. Khaki trouser and shirt, green tie and school badge — her darling son. Before she could get up from her chair, he went over to her and extending his hand, spoke in English. ‘Oh Mummy, how are you?’ And there he stood, smiling and holding his hand out.
She wanted to hug him close to her.
‘You are a brick to have come just now, mum. I would have caught it from old Ghosh, this period. Peter called me a lucky guy.’
Is this the child whom she’d borne in her womb and held to her breast—
‘Which class do you have now?’ ‘Dictation. I go wrong always.’ ‘Why don’t you speak Malayalam?’
‘You are fined for talking vernacular here. Four annas from your pocket money if you are caught.’
‘We are alone here.’ ‘You can’t be sure.’
It was she who used to tell him in English : ‘Talk in English, Rajiv.
You must develop the habit. You have to learn it.’ ‘Who’s Peter?’
‘Peter Zakharia, my best friend. Head boy in our form.’
The superintendent came in. May be he thought the mother and son had talked enough.
‘Can I take him with me? I shall bring him back tomorrow in time for class.’
‘Oh, we have a feast here tonight. But, of course, if you are particular—‘
Rajiv lapsed into Malayalam!
‘Oh, not tonight. I promised Peter….’
I’ll buy you whatever you’d have for your feast.’ ‘It’s not that. Peter….’
‘Hmm. What’s the matter with Peter?’ ‘He promised to teach me magic.’
‘It can wait till tomorrow.’
‘You see, this is a moonlight feast. He needs moonlight for the tricks.’
‘You’ll have moonlight feasts again. You have them every month.’ ‘Oh no. Peter will be so cross. I nagged him till he agreed. Now, if
I leave with you…’
When she left him here for the first time he’d cried,
‘Amma, please don’t leave me here. I’d rather go to school there. I don’t want to be on my own.’
‘It is for your own good, son.’ Be a man, son!
She had removed his small arms from around her neck and after pushing him away from her, had gone out. Now that she came to him to beg—
‘Don’t go then’, he said in Malayalam. ‘You stay here. Ask Mr.
Austin if you might.’
Mr. Austin was an Anglo Indian who belonged to Kerala. He had followed their conversation.
‘I am afraid that’s difficult, Mrs. Panikker. There is no room to offer you. I am very sorry.’
Her son did not need her. There was a time when he needed her but then she hadn’t stood by him. Now when she needed him….
‘I am sorry, mother. Peter will be so angry.’
Peter…..Peter Zakharia, you are everything to him — whatever I should have been and whatever I never have been to him. Take care of him, please. This is the plea of a hapless mother. Watch over my child, will you? Lead him on the right path!
Will he also grow up to be a rootless drifter like me? My son! My child—
‘Can I get you a cup of tea?’ Mr. Austin was in a hurry to be rid of
‘No. Thanks.’ She rose to her feet. ‘Rajiv, my son—‘
She clasped both his hands and pressed them to her breast. There was only bewilderment on his face.
My child, you, who have eyes and eyebrows like mine, when you
grow up and sit in judgment on your mother, you must recall this moment. This moment when she came to kneel in front of you, holding out her hands to you. My son, please remember it.
She heard a bell ring.
‘That’s the games recess for us.’
She let go of his hands and walked out with her head lowered. She collapsed into the auto that was waiting for her.
A mother whom her own child no longer needed. She buried her face into the pallu of her sari and wept. She sat alone in the cave-like cab with its canvas covered sides and sobbed. Sobbed louder and louder..
The cabbie stopped the vehicle. It had reached a junction. She removed the pallu from her face. He had climbed down from the cab and was looking at her. He couldn’t speak her language.
‘Railway station,’ she said. He stood there staring at her some more time.
Then he got back in. Railway station—the gateway to damnation.