The lost Neelambari


Thirty-three years had gone by and Dr Subhadra Devi, the eminent surgeon, was back in Madurai in search of something she had lost. But if someone were to ask her what it was that she missed, she would have failed to give a satisfactory reply. Had she made this trip in order to relive the pain she had endured here some time in the past? Wasn’t it only to taste the sweetness of that ache that she had undertaken such a long journey by car, all alone, without even her driver — after she had given her patients and the hospital authorities some reassuring excuses? Does a patient ever come back to the hospital looking for the organ that has been removed by surgery? Never. This trip only reveals my foolishness . . . Subhadra told herself.

Even while studying in Madras and later on, while living in Kozhikode with her husband, the city of Madurai remained a misty dream in Subhadra. The streets that held the fragrance of jasmine, jamandi and wild basil, the shops that exuded the smell of new cloth, the cool and smooth inner corridors of the Meenakshi temple, the wicks used for tilahomam, the neelambari sung by her guru in the evening twilight — all stayed evergreen within her. Her husband had tried several times to remove those memories from her mind as if they were weeds covering a pond. He feared that she would never be truly his as long as they lingered.

“When you talk about Madurai, you turn a different person altogether, Subhadra,” he would say. Subhadra rarely ever mentioned the Brahmin youth who had taught her music. Yet, the shadow of that teacher-student relationship fell between them.

“Tell me the truth, have you been anybody’s lover?” the husband once asked.

“I was a virgin till I got married,” she said. But there was no sense of pride when she revealed that truth. Her voice almost hinted her feeling that it was unfortunate she did not lose her virginity. Her husband felt sad.

When friends and acquaintances hailed Dr Subhadra Devi and Chandrashekhara Menon as an ideal couple, Subhadra did not protest. Nor did she feel elated over their praise. She made love to her husband, with a feeling of numbness lurking in some unknown corner of her heart. Without any show of indifference, day and night, she fulfilled all her duties as an upper class Hindu wife. Yet her husband had complaints.

“You show complete sincerity only towards your patients. You can understand only a doctor-patient relationship. I feel extremely jealous of your patients.”

Those words frightened her. Did she fail him as a wife? Was she incomplete as a woman?

Her husband had never aroused her, Subhadra thought. Once again, she remembered the time she had gone to swim in the temple pond where Shastrigal bathed and how she got almost drowned. Shastrigal’s elder sister’s daughter, Jnanambal, her friend, was with her. Subhadra also remembered how on hearing Jnanambal’s wails, Shastrigal swam towards her and rescued her. As Shastrigal held her close to his chest, her body became a sea, full of whirlpools. She felt a tug in the pit of her stomach as though she had come down suddenly from a swing. Was that the first burst of passion? How often she longed to touch his chest where the sacred thread lay nestled! The vermilion mark, damp with sweat, on his forehead and the single rudraksha bead he wore round his neck entered her dreams. The vermilion mark remained in her memory and dreams even after her marriage.

Subhadra’s father was an ophthalmologist in Madurai. When she told him that her friends went to one Ramanujam Shastrigal’s madhom to learn music, he gave her permission to join the class. Subhadra told her father that Shastrigal was her closest friend Jnanam’s uncle. Thereafter, he had no objection in her going to the madhom in the evenings. She would go with Jnanam and return with her. That was the arrangement.

Jnanam had a goat-like face. But at every opportunity, she would tease Subhadra and call her ‘fatso’. She would always say that the dark coloured clothes Subhadra wore did not suit her dusky complexion. Subhadra’s thick tresses were described as the hair of the asuras. These words gave Subhadra a feeling of inferiority. Jnanam constantly boasted that she was born into an aristocratic family.

“You have the practice of eating fish and meat. So, you will never gain skill in music. A mouth that chews meat can never render keerthanas.”

Subhadra became a vegetarian. The sudden change in the daughter’s diet surprised the parents. Subhadra, who would never take food without fried fish, was now eating curd rice and pickles with such relish!

Maybe due to her interaction with Jnanam, Subhadra gave up frocks and switched over completely to half-sari. She also began to grow her hair and wear jasmine garland on it in the evenings. Ragas would dance on her lips all the time.

One day Ramanujam Shastrigal brought his old mother to the ophthalmology clinic. She had cataract in her eyes and they had come to Subhadra’s father for a surgery.

“I am Shastrigal and I teach Subhadra music,” he introduced himself.

Subhadra’s father had assumed that the music teacher was an old man. But the youth sitting before him seemed a hero emerging from the ancient epics. Was it to this handsome Brahmin’s madhom that his only daughter went in the evenings?

He immediately recalled the changes in her. She was adamant about getting her nose pierced and wore flower garlands in her hair in the evenings. Her new style of dress, her interest in vegetarian meals . . . to the father everything was proof that his daughter was in love with her guru. How could it be otherwise? The tender and innocent sixteen year-old girl may have become her teacher’s slave. He may have charmed her.

He said, “Subhadra will not be coming for music lessons from tomorrow. I fear that she might get bitten by dogs when she returns in the evenings and I lose sleep over it.”

Shastrigal humbly promised to come over to Subhadra’s house on Sundays to teach her.

“Please don’t bother. I wish to send her to Madras for her college studies,” Subhadra’s father replied.

Thus, Subhadra reached Madras. With a love-lorn heart, she stayed there. In course of time, she took up medicine and returned home a doctor.

Her marriage was fixed that same year. The groom was selected by her father. He was rich and highly educated. She did not protest.

Shastrigal had by then married his niece Jnanam. That alliance had been decided on by the families the very day Jnanam was born. One day, wearing a new silk chela, her cheeks bright with turmeric paste, Jnanam came to see Subhadra. She looked contented. When she began to talk about Shastrigal’s tender love for her, Subhadra stopped her.

“I’m not interested in your secrets,” she told Jnanam.

“You’re jealous of me, aren’t you? I know that you are interested in him.”

“What sinful lies you utter! I have felt only a disciple’s devotion and respect towards Shastrigal,” Subhadra retorted.

Jnanam broke into a loud peal of laughter.

“Don’t I know your devotion and respect! When he rescued you from the pond, I saw how tightly you held him. It is not possible for anyone, who is almost dead by drowning, to hold her saviour so tightly.”

“Don’t spread scandals. My marriage has been fixed,” Subhadra muttered.

When Jnanam proceeded to relate each one of her bedroom secrets, Subhadra left the room in disgust. She did not attempt to see Shastrigal or invite him to her wedding.


Subhadra’s husband criticised her for her lack of affection. If the patients or their relatives, who came to the clinic, talked to her about anything other than their disease, he would become upset and walk up and down the corridor restlessly. The patients would then go silent.

Chandrashekhara Menon would never speak to his wife’s patients. Nor would he smile if some among them were his acquaintances. He saw them as enemies who whisked his wife away from him. His desire was to watch TV in Subhadra’s company, read books to each other, go for walks together, go on outings in the evening by car and so on. But there was always a crowd standing in a queue before the clinic. The telephone would ring incessantly. Urgent messages would come from the hospital, reminding Subhadra of emergency operations in accident cases. On some days when Subhadra was sleeping, Menon would say over the phone, “Dr Subhadra is not here. She has gone to Guruvayoor to see her mother.”

Such lies provoked her.

“You won’t feel worried if my patient died, will you?” she would ask.

“If a patient is fated to die, he will. Even you won’t be able to save him. Is a doctor more powerful than God?”

During some nights, on those rare occasions when the telephone did not ring, he would greedily savour the fragrance of that beautiful woman’s skin and hair, as she slept on. He realised with wonder that although her hair had begun to grey, his wife had not lost her beauty. She did not resist his caresses but she was not willing to demonstrate her love either.

“I feel jealous of your patients,” Menon said.

Subhadra asked her husband whether a doctor could not be a patient’s friend as well.

“That should never happen. Friendship will lead to sentimentality. That will be dangerous to both the doctor and the patient. Haven’t your fingers trembled when you operated on your friend’s stomach?”

Chandrashekhara Menon had always followed a well-regimented life. He had only three or four friends and was willing to accept their hospitality. Only they were invited to his house. If he met some acquaintances at the club or any public place, he would merely smile or exchange a few words. To utter strangers, his face was a locked gate.

Every year Subhadra would accompany her husband to the Guruvayoor temple. Menon would keep coins worth fifty rupees in his handkerchief for the beggars who lined the way to the temple. He would walk towards the temple enveloping his wife with his hairy arms in order to keep unnecessary intruders at bay.

After giving away all the coins, it was usual for him to yell at the fifty-first beggar. The peaceful expression on his face would suddenly vanish. “Go, go away. Don’t disturb us,” he would shout. If, in an effort to reach the sanctum to have a darshan of the deity, a man happened to brush against Subhadra, Menon would holler: “Don’t you have eyes on your face? Do you have to fall over women?” Maybe because he stood more than six feet tall and looked very strong, no one would attempt to start a quarrel. But Subhadra’s face would go pale with shame and embarrassment.

Menon who used to feel sad about not having children finally began to see her barrenness as a blessing.

“You won’t get any time to care for children. You have thoughts only about your patients all the time ….” he said.

When Menon, who always cursed patients, himself fell ill, Subhadra became restless with a sense of regret. She began to feel that she had not done her duty towards him. Maybe her egoism grew when she started making ten times more money than he did.

Earlier, she used to respect him. She even feared him. Subhadra had not imagined that a man from an ancient and illustrious family would become her husband. As she had grown up in Tamil Nadu and was of a dusky complexion, whenever she went to her mother’s native place during Onam, relatives used to call her ‘chettichi’. Chandrashekhara Menon could have married a beautiful girl from an aristocratic family. Why did he choose Subhadra, who could speak Malayalam only with a Tamil accent?

Once he told her, “You have all the features of Draupadi. But what attracted me most was your humility.”

Where had that humility gone? When she came to be regarded as a god by her patients and their relatives, an unreasonable self-pride was born. She began to see herself as the axle of the world. She renovated the house. Fitted the bedroom with an air-conditioner. Employed more servants. She started wearing only expensive silk sarees. Furniture, curtains, carpets — everything was refurbished. The only object that could not be renewed was her husband. He would walk in the garden and the corridor, clad in an old vest and dhoti. When a front tooth fell, he refused to fit an artificial one.

“With or without the tooth, I am Chandrashekhara Menon and will continue to be so.” He laughed. Subhadra did not have the heart to join him in the laughter. She felt that moment that her life had begun to decay.

In the evening after her bath, as she stood on the veranda running her fingers through her hair, Subhadra remembered Shastrigal singing the Neelambari. The crimson hue of the setting sun reminded her of the intense fire in his eyes.

“Let’s go to Madurai Meenakshi temple. I’ll take two days’ leave,” Subhadra told her husband one day.

“With our Guruvayoor here, Malayalis do not need to go to any other temple,” Menon replied. He had said this before falling sick. As he lay helpless, stricken with arthritis, he would shed tears silently. The cause of his sorrow was unknown to Subhadra. She would make lemonade herself and pour it into his mouth. Also foment his body all by herself. Servants and friends who saw Dr Subhadra nursing her husband praised her wifely virtues.

* * *

When Dr Subhadra told the hospital authorities that she would be away from Kozhikode for three days, her patients and their relatives were alarmed.

“Why do you worry? There are so many other doctors here. I’m growing old. I’m not immortal, you see,” Dr Subhadra told them.

She was the doctor who enjoyed the greatest reputation in Kozhikode. People respected her for serving them without an eye on personal gains.

Friends tried to stop her when they learnt that she would be driving all the way herself. If she didn’t want a driver, couldn’t she take along with her a relative who knew driving? They queried.

Subhadra said that she very much wanted to be on her own. She openly confessed that what she sought was solitude and silence.

By then, she had adopted a dress style that suited a widow. But for her trip to Madurai, she packed some dark silk sarees in her box. She arranged her things with a palpitating heart, like a bride leaving for her honeymoon. Perfumes, stone necklaces, red stone ornaments.


Subhadra felt that Madurai after thirty-three years donned an unfamiliar look. Most of the old houses had vanished. The flats were thickly packed with people. In the streets that once sold flowers, Subhadra saw shops that displayed old clothes of foreigners and other imported dresses. The building where she and her parents had lived was now a nursery school.

As she went southwards, she saw the temple pond and beside it the madhom, looking mouldy and ugly. She walked towards the madhom. The steps leading to the house were broken here and there. She knocked on the door several times but no one bothered to open it. Perhaps Shastrigal and his family had left the place, she thought. It was impossible to imagine that anyone lived there. Grass and thorny bushes had sprouted in the front yard.

While she was climbing down the steps, the gate opened and an old woman walked towards her. That was Jnanambal. She must be around fifty years old but Subhadra noticed that Jnanambal’s appearance made her look seventy. She was shocked. What had happened to Jnanam? Balding head, veins sticking out on her arms, hollow cheeks, chipped teeth — all made the woman look grotesque. A skeletal form with a faded chela draped on it.

“Who are you?” Jnanam asked.

“Don’t you recognise me? I am Subhadra — who used to study music from Shastrigal, along with you,” Subhadra replied.


“Yes. Where is Shastrigal? Having come to Madurai, I thought of looking you up. I’m seeing Madurai after thirty-three years.”

“Did you have darshan at the Meenakshi temple?” Jnanam asked.

“No. I’ve just arrived. I decided that first I’ll see you and Shastrigal. Then return to the hotel, have a bath and go for the darshan,” Subhadra said.

“You are late. Shastrigal is no more. Typhoid. It’s nearly a year now since he died.”

“I didn’t read it in the newspaper,” Subhadra expressed astonishment.

“Shastrigal’s death was not so important as to be put in the newspaper. He was just a music teacher. He didn’t have the luck to earn fame or wealth. Lived in poverty and died in poverty. When I used to worry about not having children, he would say, ‘All my students are my children. They’ll help us in time of need.’ And what happened? Posted letters to all his old students. No one sent a reply or bothered to offer us any help. We didn’t have enough money for the treatment,” Jnanam’s voice faltered.

Subhadra hugged Jnanam. The smell of sweat from Jnanam’s blouse was intolerable — the kind of stench people have when they have not taken bath for several days. Storms rose in Subhadra’s mind. She wanted to rush back to the hotel room, cry out loudly and find relief in it.

“How can I help you?” she asked Jnanam.

“What help do I need now? Nothing. It was because of you that I first quarrelled with him. He once told me that he had taught the Dhyayam only to you. That naturally made me angry. I asked him to teach me that Mahesha sthuthi but he said that I didn’t have the maturity for it. So Subhadra, you became my enemy in the first days of my marriage.”

Quickly removing Jnanam’s arms from her shoulder, Subhadra walked towards the gate. “You misunderstood everything. Shastrigal never showed me any partiality,” she said.

Subhadra looked back as she walked past the gate. Jnanam stood like a statue on the steps, showing no emotion. Subhadra feared that the waves of hatred coming from that woman would travel through the air and scorch her. She quickly climbed into her car and drove off to the hotel without looking back or taking leave of Jnanam.

After her bath, she wore new clothes and went to the Madurai Meenakshi temple. She wished to leave Madurai the next day itself and go somewhere else. Hadn’t she lost her ability to see dreams now? How long she had been longing to hear him sing the Neelambari — at least once! The melodious notes of Neelambari that rose when the golden rays of the sun died down in the west …. Subhadra wiped her eyes. Why should she live? So far, she had lived in hope. What was there to strive for in the future?

As she stood before the deity, looking radiant in green silk and diamond necklace, Subhadra wept uncontrollably. “I am a widow, Mother,” she whispered to the goddess. “Though dressed as a bride, I’m a widow … pardon me.”

Suddenly she heard a familiar voice. “Subhadra, when did you come?” As she turned, she saw Ramanujam Shastrigal standing near her, almost half-naked, wearing only the angavastram. Greying curly hair. A single rudraksha bead on his chest. The vermilion mark on his forehead. Even the hair on his chest had turned grey. Subhadra stood dumbstruck. Was this Shastrigal’s ghost that had come from the other world, attracted by her love entreaties? Had his soul appeared in order to delude her?

Without uttering a word, Subhadra stared at the handsome figure. She feared that its outlines would grow thinner and thinner and eventually vanish.

Shastrigal moved away from the door of the sanctum and stood near a pillar. He waved his hand to call Subhadra to his side. She obeyed.

“When did you come, Subhadra?” he asked. But she stood tongue-tied. He put one hand on her shoulder and lifted her wet face with the other.

“Why are you crying, Subhadra? What has happened to you?” Shastrigal asked.

“Jnanam told me that you were no more. And I believed it,” she replied.

“Jnanam is mad. No amount of treatment did her any good. She was even taken to Bangalore for shock treatment,” Shastrigal said.

“I am sorry.”

“I was not destined to enjoy any happiness. I teach children music even today. Even now, I live in penury . . . What about you, Subhadra? Are you happy? Are your husband and children doing well?” Shastrigal queried.

“My husband is dead. I never had children . . . leading a lonely life, treating patients ….” she said.

Subhadra felt that people were looking at her and Shastrigal suspiciously. She wished to sit with him in some other place, tell him of the emotions she had kept hidden for thirty-three years, fearlessly show her love at least once, and rest her face on that chest . . .

“No Subhadra, I won’t come to your hotel. I don’t wish to taint your image,” Shastrigal said.

Even when she played her last card — crying inside the car that had been parked on the roadside — Shastrigal did not lose his softness.

“Each one has his duty to perform. The aim of our lives is to do it. You shouldn’t bring harm to your husband’s reputation. I should live here and continue to nurse my mad wife. There is no other way destined for us” he said.

Suddenly, from a building behind the street, the waves of Neelambari arose. Subhadra saw a pale crescent appearing on the sky at that moment.

Translated from Malayalam by P. Radhika.

A writer of international repute, started writing early, inspired by her uncle Nalapat Narayan Menon, a prominent writer. Her mother, Nalapat Balamani Amma, is also a well-known Malayalam poet. Kamala Suraiyya is bilingual, and writes easily in Malayalam (under the name Madhavikutty) and English. Her autobiographical novel, My Story, shocked mainstream Kerala with its candid accounts of her encounters with men. In 1999 she converted to Islam. She is also known as a feminist writer.

Teaches English at the Fatima Mata National College, Kollam. Her doctoral work was on Angus Wilson. Has contributed articles in research journals. Interested in translating.

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A writer of international repute, started writing early, inspired by her uncle Nalapat Narayan Menon, a prominent writer. Her mother, Nalapat Balamani Amma, is also a well-known Malayalam poet. Kamala Suraiyya is bilingual, and writes easily in Malayalam (under the name Madhavikutty) and English. Her autobiographical novel, My Story, shocked mainstream Kerala with its candid accounts of her encounters with men. In 1999 she converted to Islam. She is also known as a feminist writer.

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