Full of hope, Kalyani picked up the small net with a long bamboo pole. But even before opening it she was disappointed. There was no fish in it. She shook the net well praying for at least some small fish to be trapped in it. But no, nothing alive had been caught in her small net.
“Oh, God! It is almost dark and nothing in the net. I am going to be in real trouble today,” she said painfully while throwing the net once more into the water as a last attempt. She sprinkled some more wet bran all over the net and waited impatiently. She knew that the fish never got into the net so easily. Still she hoped, the last hope that just a single one may get trapped yet. She prayed to all the Gods, invoking them one by one. She waited, sure of getting something. But suppose she didn’t get anything? She was frightened. She felt that her body lacked the strength to bear all his blows. Oh, God! She cursed the fate that landed her with a man like her husband.
She wondered whether it was sheer fate or perhaps her own fault too which brought about her present plight. She could have objected to the marriage. But nobody asked for her consent. She had seen him before marriage and had felt that she had never seen another man as dirty as him. But she overheard the grownups in her house saying, “It is indeed the girl’s luck. The boy has a small place to live in and there is nobody else to claim it.” Yes, it is luck. And she has no wish or strength to throw it away. Nor does she have the strength to do so. And marriage is a welcome change. The new clothes and the grand feast, the festivity, the chain and thali – everything is good.
She thought about him seriously on the night of her marriage. The way the new bridegroom came in that day! She had screamed on seeing him on unsteady legs, fully drunk. Big blood shot eyes gleamed in his horrible dark face. She looked at him just once. By then he slipped on the step, fell down and started to vomit. She ran away unable to bear the foul smell. Somebody came and cleaned the room and put him to bed. She cried and sobbed the whole night. She had never even in her darkest dreams imagined such a fierce drunkard as her husband. Oh! What is the point in thinking of all that? Wasn’t it all past?
She put some more wet bran to attract the fish. She thought about the difference, when there was fish and when she couldn’t get it. He will never eat a meal without fish. When he didn’t enjoy the meal, he would break all the pots, beat his wife and throw the plate with food on her face. Then he would do whatever he felt like doing. But once he was satisfied with his food his attitude was different. Then he would be very affectionate to his wife. When she ate the leftovers from his plate, he would sit by her side and murmur endearments to her. Then he would make her happy by singing the love songs he had heard at the toddy shop. She felt that her man really loved her. If she couldn’t cook food to his liking, he had every right to give her a couple of beatings. After all it was her duty to somehow keep him satisfied. She knows it fully well.
Before going to work in the fields and after coming back too, she used to cast her net on the stagnant stream. When she pulled out the net, gold and silver coloured fish would jump out of it. She would put them in an earthen pot, with water and kept it safely away from stray dogs and cats. Only then did she go even to have her food. Thus she would earn enough for a curry.
There had been times before, when she couldn’t get any fish. On those days she would secure it from somewhere and compensate. Some times she gets a few fish as a loan from her neighbor Paru. Since it was a lucky day when they got a plate of fish, Paru liked to lend. Kalyani could clear her debt when she had a good catch. Sometimes she would buy from the fishmongers who caught fish in their big net from the river. But they never gave on credit. They didn’t want fish in exchange. That was something Kalyani didn’t like. She didn’t have such an item in her budget. However, since she didn’t like her husband’s beating she had even paid cash and bought fish. This would lessen the number of coins in her small earthen pot. That pot was to be filled by the time her darling son was born.
Today everything seemed to be wrong for Kalyani. Even if she decided to take a wee bit of her savings, none of the fishmongers were to be seen by the riverside. She was not on talking terms with her neighbor Paru on account of a silly quarrel over a palm leaf. Paru must have got fish. But she couldn’t ask. Though Paru was really responsible for the quarrel, the locals believed that Kalyani was to be blamed. Kalyani had seen a palm leaf falling from the coconut tree in her yard. But Paru had smartly pulled it up from the water with a pole and taken it away. Was Kalyani to be blamed for picking up a quarrel ? Was she wrong in calling Paru a cheat? But Paru did not give in. She said whatever she felt like. Hearing the quarrel, Paru’s husband and Kalyani’s husband came. Both bandied words for the insult caused to their respective wives. The women went back into their huts, blowing their nose. The quarrel was now between the men. Standing on either sides of the canal, those men declared spiritedly that they would stab, cut each other up into pieces and throw them into the canal. The chiefs of the locality had to come to calm them down. After all that, to go and ask Paru for fish? Don’t even think of it. It would have been alright if she could get at least some small fish this time.
Chanting a prayer she lifted the net. There, a shining fish lay struggling in it. Not that big, but not too small either. Her face brightened and she couldn’t help laughing.
Turning to get the fish from the net, she saw a young man coming from a short distance. She stared at the stranger in wonder. The pleasure of having got a fish danced on her red lips and shining eyes. She looked at him again, who is he? His face seemed familiar. But she couldn’t place him. She turned all the pages of her memory. Oh, yes. In the Ramayana. A figure like Srirama in the Ramayana. No kuduma, valkalam or punul. He has the bow and arrow. And she knows that the thing on his wrist is something that shows the time. She had seen some others wearing such things. That handsome face and body were just like those of Srirama. That big bow and arrow! That catapult in his hand is for hunting fish. Kalyani had seen many people going with the catapult. But she had never felt that they were like Srirama. The man does not belong to this place. She is quite familiar with the people here. Most of them are farmers. Those who worked in the fields and those who made them work. She was sure of those who worked with her. Moreover she was sure that this one did not belong to the group of workers. She didn’t have difficulty to understand that he belonged to the group who made others work. There were no landlords there whom she was not familiar with. Must be someone who came from afar. Or let it be anyone.
“See, the fish has escaped’’, the young man who had come nearer exclaimed.
She was startled. “Oh, God”, she shook her net. No, it is not there, it has escaped. She looked helplessly at the sun god who appeared as a red fireball far out to the west, at the end of the earth. The sun patted her affectionately, put a rosy tinge to her cheeks. A light breeze danced in her curly dry hair. The man looked on, absorbed in the poetic scene before him. Suddenly she turned and looked, not at him, but at the heavy bunch of fish hanging from a cord in his hands.
“Are they for sale?” she asked, not looking at his face, as if the question was to the fish.
“Yes. What you caught escaped, eh?”
Smiling , he threw before her the bunch of heavy fish he was holding in his left hand. Those unlucky creatures struggled in the thread drawn tightly through their mouths. Their eyes were protruding. She felt sorry for them, even though her own distress was worse. Today husband might kill me. But this fish is quite costly. Otherwise would have bought one.
“How much does one cost?” she looked at him in all seriousness. But looking at his face, she felt shy and looked down.
“These small ones are one rupee each and the bigger ones; one and a half each.”
“That is too much, fourfold. Ask a reasonable price. It is already getting late.”
“Whose fault that it is getting late? The price is quite reasonable. If you want you can take it.”
“If so, I don’t want it. Anyway it is almost dark. When will I get dinner ready, Oh, God!” She murmured half to herself and half to him, collected her things and started to walk her way.
“You didn’t say how much you can pay.” He called to her from behind.
She turned back, “You said that is the last price as if there is no bargaining.” “Please stop there; let me tell you”.
He took the fish , went near her and asked, “How many do you need?”
“Only a small one and that too only after fixing the price.”
“Why a smaller one? Have these two big ones.” He took them out on a string and offered it to her.
She took it. The fish felt pretty heavy. “Oh, these are too big and will cost the sky. We are poor folk. We cannot afford it,” She said coyly.
“Oh, I have not put any price on them. They are absolutely free. I angle for a joke, not to sell them and make money.”
“I do not want things free of cost. I don’t like charity.”
“No, no, not that way. I will take the money when you have it. Now, take the fish. That is all.” And he stared at her, as if taking the price of the fish directly out of her. She felt that gaze pierce her heart! Suddenly she remembered. It was night. A star twinkled in the sky. She ran.
Kalyani started cooking in a great hurry. Dinner has to be ready before her husband comes back. While cutting the big fish her hands trembled. In the hurry she cut her finger. The fishbone pierced her hands. Her mind still felt sore. The sharpness of that gaze! She felt the bulging eyes of the dead fish were also staring at her. She felt angry. She pricked the eyes and plucked them out. The silvery scales of the fish smiled at her action.
The work is over at last. The fish is cooking on the stove. She did not think of the husband who would devour it without even wondering from where she had got it. Nor did she feel happy at the thought that he would be pleased. She thought of the fisherman. Who could it be? On what assurance had he given her the fish? “This is not free. I will take the price!” What does it mean? That gaze! At that thought the wound in her heart started to bleed.
Putting a stop to her reveries her husband came in. The foul smell of alcohol filled the place. With great effort, he entered the house on unsteady legs.
“Hey, Galyani, serve the meal.” Swaggering on unsteady legs, he sat down there.
Kalyani served hot rice and fish curry.
“From where is this karimeen? Smells fine.” He was gulping down big balls of rice. Kalyani still kept a safe distance. He cannot be trusted until he has finished his food.
“From where did you get this fish Kalayani? Tell me.”
“I bought it.”
“So you do have liquid cash with you, eh? But you didn’t give me anything when I asked you today. From whom did you buy?”
He was just asking questions, without expecting any answers and eating. All the while he kept belching and spitting all around.
“I bought it from the fishermen.” Kalyani later thought that she needn’t have lied. As far as he is concerned, it doesn’t matter whatever she says. Even so she was scared to talk about the stranger to her husband even in his state of drunken stupor.
He is gulping down the food. Eating it with taste. Kalyani felt sympathetic towards her husband. Though a drunkard, how much he trusted her! The wound made by that fisherman’s sharp eye started to bleed again.
After the master of the house finished his meal, that devoted wife sat down to eat from the same plate. After eating the rice that remained, she started to get up. He exclaimed, “Why! Are you going? Fill your stomach. Have that curry, my dear”. She felt nausea at the sight of those fish pieces. Such fleshy meat, like human flesh.
“Oh, I am not hungry today.” She got up.
She spread the mat and curled up in a corner. He started to sing and dance. He didn’t like her going off to sleep early on such a wonderful night. When she did not show any signs of getting up while he called, he lifted her up with one hand. She pushed him away scolding him in irritation, “What a bother! If you drink toddy it should remain in your stomach. Not become a nuisance to others.”
“Bother, eh? Who is bothering you? So you have started to talk back, eh?” He gave her a push. She fell down and hurt her head. But she didn’t scream. He kicked her twice or thrice with great force. Even then she was not thinking of him or his cruelty towards her. She lay there thinking of the stranger’s meaningful words and look. Whenever she closed her eyes, there he was in front of her with the catapult in hand.
Even when it dawned, Kalyani did not get up. She had dozed off. Her husband shook her trying to wake her up. She had to cook and go to work, not sleep.
He was shocked when he saw her. Her face and eyelids were swollen and the blood had dried up on her face and hands. He pulled her up tenderly and patted her and tried to soothe her with words. He felt sad. What cruelty he had shown! Never before had such a thing happened. He had indeed hurt her once or twice – that too when he was drunk. But at those times there never had been visible signs like these.
He brought water in a pot and asked her to wash her face; then went to light the fire and cook the rice himself. They had the kanji together. She looked at him gratefully. And he looked at her with great affection and repentance. In that silence they spoke to each other eloquently.
He asked her not to go for work that day. But she went anyway. Thinking of her loving husband she worked smartly the whole day. At times in spite of her protests, that fisherman also encroached on her thoughts. She understood that the man would come that way today also.
That evening as soon as she finished work, she went home and took out some coins from her treasure pot and added them to the money she had, to make it three rupees. Then she went to the fishing spot near the canal. She looked around. Nobody was there. So she spread her net on the water and waited. There, he was coming. Today also he is carrying fish. She pursed up her lips and watched him. He was approaching with a smile on his face. When he came close she offered the money.
“What is this?” he asked.
“Didn’t I say I don’t want any money? Today there are only two fish. This one escaped twice before I could catch him.”
“Please take the money,” she said.
“Which of these do you want? Or take both.”
“If you don’t want the money, throw it into the canal there.” She threw the money at his feet and walked away proudly. A shadow seemed to spread on his face.
That day also the husband beat the wife since his meal was not satisfying. She sobbed for a while, but had a nice sleep.
The next day also they had their breakfast together in close intimacy. They went on arguing over the fact whether the new farmer at their workplace was better than the old one or not.
Translated from Malayalam by Sudha Warrier
B. Saraswathy is the daughter of Karur Neelakanda Pillai, one of the most famous of Malayalam short story writers. At the time she entered the field of short story writing the competition was very high with multi splendoured talents like Uroob, Basheer, Pottekkad and many others leading the way. Thakazhi, Karur, Kesavadev and Ponkunnam Varkey contributed largely to the short story and M.T. Vasudevan Nair and Madhavikutty were in full bloom though younger than them in age. Yet Saraswathy’s stories had an identity of their own. Though she did not pursue writing as a career her two collections of short stories, Karinja Pookkal (Dry Flowers) and Vasanthikkoru Rakshamargam (A way of escape for Vasanthi) have a place in the history of Malayalam short story and woman’s writing in Malayalam. She did not take the extreme view of K. Saraswathy Amma in proclaiming the woman’s cause nor did she fall with the highly romantic disposition that Rajalakshmi’s writings reflected. The unique feature of her stories was that they depicted in the everyday life of women.
The little anxieties and petty ambitions of the rural working class get well depicted in the story Meenkaran (Fishmonger). Their instinctive faith in the institution of family as the basic structure of society is what gives meaning to their life- long efforts to make both ends meet and the loyalty towards work and emotional rapport with nature form the base on which some sort of a security is built. In today’s context, where a ‘going back to family’ attitude is replacing the non-existential and nonsensical hallucinations of the twentieth century, the story has a special relevance. Instead of trying to re discover and reclaim a family the uneducated, unsophisticated, rural woman in the story is trying to hold on tightly to what is hers – be it a fallen palm leaf or a drunkard of a husband.
SUDHA WARRIER. Freelance journalist and film critic. Her doctorate was on the topic “Comparative Study of Film Adaptations Russian and Malayalam.” She has published five books in Malayalam and a number of research papers on literature, film and allied subjects. Well versed in Malayalam, English and Russian.