I felt that the mornings were monotonous. That was why I began to long for the evenings. Now that I am a patient, I stand amazed as the strong line of defence ebbs away.
I make tasty food and drape expensive clothes and don jewellery that is appealing to my husband. As I wait with a kind of anticipation, I gain confidence. I am anxious, for I know that things rarely turn out to be the way I want it to be. Caught in the never ending round of busy days, he spends most of his time with others, unable to give me or my illness his attention, This creates a tension in me, especially in the evenings. In the dreary emptiness of my evenings, I long to ask the stars about it.
Why should my children go to their tuition classes in the evening? They have good marks and enough general knowledge. Why should the clear dusk over the yard where my children played, retreat to my dusty fancy? Why do they engross themselves in the sick hurry of life without enjoying life or themselves? It is a state in which all habits and manners become materialistic and turn to figures.
As the evening lengthened, the stillness that reigned obediently disappeared. The other side of life became evident. A vast desert sans people! Amidst them arose a graveyard full of small graves and a stone bench beside each where people could sit for a time to remember their dead. From the bench led a narrow path along which a single person could walk.
As this unsettled me no end, I authoritatively tried to put my evenings in order, made it lively and regimental. I could assume this role only after their arrival. Without authority, .1 was just a traveller— a traveller who anxiously trailed after the children and their father without revealing myself.
I did not love to travel. I longed for authority. I shaped my mind accordingly. I arranged everything that my husband and children liked in my mind. I stood amidst the beauty of the dusk on the hillside enjoying the droplets of water in the air. The image was evoked by the slow coolness in which the grape wine motif on my sari fluttered as the breeze blew.
Between five and five thirty in the evening three buses plied. I can see them pass through the rubber trees when I looked out of the window, sitting on my bed. I could not watch people alighting from the bus, for the bus stop was around the corner and in the shadow of another house. I could recognise the visitors by looking at the colour of the bus. I always grew unsettled when I watched the five-year-old Neethu jump like a grasshopper out of the bus with her heavy satchel. When I grew anxious on account of the carelessness with which she was sent forth on the bus, her father argued: “ It is not that I cannot afford to send her in the school bus or in an auto. Let her learn what life is like. It is not in the school bus or in an auto that she will learn of life. She will encounter life in an ordinary bus, the one in which all people travel in. In the journey, she will be always aware of the route along which she goes. She will learn to concentrate. She will not be robbed. Train her to be on her guard at all times.” I fall silent but am unable to shake off my fear of the possibility of danger.
I did not seek to argue that she should be able to travel without thinking about her journey but rather be engrossed in the beauty of the flowers and the butterflies. Is that the reason that the valves of my heart became perforated? there was a short procession of people who had alighted from the bus. A number .Of small children clinging on to their books and to their lunch boxes were there. Ahead of them came three men. A mother with a sleeping child on her shoulder made up the rear. Beside her, wearing a long skirt walked a pretty little girl. The little girl looked at my garden in pleasant surprise. Her intense interest shone in her eyes. She tried to hide a smile as she intoned:
“Here is master’s lunch box.”
“Sir has gone to Muvaattupuzha, hasn’t he’?” She smiled.
I said, “I thought he wouldn’t go to Muvaattupuzha today.”
She laughed again. As she ran away, the broad anklets with their tiny suspended adornments and bells tinkled merrily. I felt sorry at my carelessness missing Neethu’s bus. As soon as she arrived, she gave vent to her grief at breaking her glass bangles in the rush inside the bus. She showed me with great pleasure a few red champak flowers she had gathered and placed carefully in her satchel. Why did I want to carry her? I did not consider her too young to be carried. She ran inside, threw her satchel on the table and climbed on to the table to open-the box of vadas, which she began eating. Sweat clung to her hands and her body. I made her wash and change. I gave her the little cucumbers that Chandu had gathered for her. Neethu’s arrival enlivened the house. The dog, the parrot and the pet rabbit expressed their welcome. The dry leaves and the household vessels whispered and clanged their joy. The nursery rhymes were chanted out of tune and echoed within and outside the home. This lasted only for five minutes, however. The tuition teacher who lived in the neighbourhood dragged her away.
Kannan was tired out when he came home. His eyes were red and swollen. I saw him hide his crumpled shirt and sweat streaked face. The strap of his satchel was broken.
“Did you fight with someone?”
“Did sister cane you?”
“Then what happened? Didn’t you take lunch today?”
As if to indicate that he had enough of questions he went inside without even taking off his shoe. When I laid out his evening meal and went to call him, I found him shivering in his bed, sprawled on his face. His fear affected me and I tried to comfort him. Something had upset him and he was trying to hide it, “What happened, Kanna?” I asked. His face appeared to be the face of a stranger. This was not Kannan. Why should he look like this if he is my son? I watched him lose the battle against the tremors that shook him. All at once he threw up and then collapsed. He looked at me as if he was dying and declared,
“My chest aches.”
“I will call an auto, my son,” I said.
He stopped me. After a time, the tremors that shook him became weaker. As he slid into a deep sleep, I realised what he had done.
“We should not try to thrust our weakness on our children,” his father always said when he doled out instructions. “Let them enjoy their freedom.”
What is freedom? My freedom, I thought was dependent on my job, I believed that women who worked had freedom. That was true until you married. The framework of freedom had to be redefined after Kannan was born and I had to go back to work after maternity leave. Is it for his freedom that Kannan thrust away the bottled milk that the servant offered him? He lost his voice when he cried for a long time. I reflected on my freedom when I saw him open his mouth to cry without producing a single sound. It was I who was responsible for Kannan’s loss of voice. Neither the doctor whom I saw nor the medicines that I gave him retrieved his voice. It cost me my freedom. I resigned my job.
Beyond my window, the day floated away. A breeze rich with the moisture of rains caressed my face as it came in through the window, before drifting out again. I discovered that I was alone in this life. Life that had stood by me earlier was not only disobeying me but dealt me several crushing blows. After some time, Neethu’s teacher peeped over the wall to tell me, “Neethu has tests in three subjects tomorrow. She will be late. I will bring her back.”
I did not reply. But when she told me two hours later that Neethu had fallen asleep while studying, I could not bear it. I sprang for her throat but I fell down. The teacher vaulted over the wall to come to my help. I could not even lift my head to look at her. The teacher said,
“Let Neethu stay with me tonight. If she comes here she may throw a tantrum.”
Where does it hurt now? I opened all the closed windows and tucked the curtains to the side. A cool breeze wafted in. Except for the front door, I kept all the other doors open. Darkness pervaded all, darkness without a tinge of light. Except for an old man who went by with a burning torch in his hand to light his way, there was no one around in the early half of the night.
During these lonely hours, I lose myself. Fancy and reality come together to create a new world. It is then that the rules and regulations, the conventions and customs that keep me in thrall lose its hold on me. What my heritage had given me, what I, in turn had given my children, become a small interlude in the journey. The ark that held my confidence intact was under attack. A new screen erected itself around me, the individual. A little later, Time gave me back my children and their father. It is for them that I immerse myself in the kitchen and in their dirty garments. I do not have in me any strength.
All on a sudden there was the excitement and the confusion attendant on elections. It had almost died down by the afternoon. As if it had been planned earlier, the procession stopped by my gate. For sometime there was the usual slogan shouting. Then. . . .then? I did not understand what they said. Then I saw some of them get down to prepare for a street play. It immediately became the centre of attraction of the street and the road. People converged there in small hands and even alone. Not long after that my gate was opened. On the yard and even atop the walls, people anchored themselves and took part in lively conversations and debates, The neighbours knocked on my door for a better vantage point. The closed doors opened. They surged onto the terrace and stayed put. Those who came in late appropriated my window and my seat.
Not long afterwards, the street play began. There was a quiet percussion instrument. A number of energetic couplets followed. Witty and brilliant repartees. There was a woman among the actors. The crowd was more than a small rural street could contain. They filled the house, crowded on the wall and even climbed the trees. Fiery emotions flamed on their faces. I was pushed out of the house. I stood watching for an escape route in the multitude. I was between the two wings of the regiment. The space between the two flanks grew less. In the end there was no space at all. As I was short, I tried desperately but without success to avoid suffocation by lifting my eyes and nose to the sky for air. I screamed in fear. Each one of the crowd was engrossed in himself and paid no heed, intent only on being as close to the street play as possible. No one was paying the slightest heed to the other. Someone grabbed me. But in the next surge of the crowd, he lost his grip. Someone’s breath hit me on the face. I had never in my life endured such a stink. Borne aloft in the crowd, I retched. Then I heard a roar. I was not sure from where it came. There was absolute quiet. Then the crowd seethed again. The nature of the crowd had changed. They had turned violent. The crowd scattered. The strong shoved the weak. Those who had not fallen trampled on those who had.
I did not fall! I was about to fall, when someone supported me. Someone pushed me in another direction. I was led for sometime, where, I knew not. I had gone for sometime like this, when a stone hit me on the head. Almost immediately another hit me on the ankle. I could not walk. I was pulled, hopping on one leg for some time. In the rhythm of the one-legged hop, accompanied by the harsh sound of the percussion instrument, I was drawn into hasty, self-defensive privacy. With a few harshly drawn breaths, I had left the surging crowd behind me. Breathlessly, I hopped and hopped. The darkness acted as a screen for me. I looked around. Where was the person who had guided me? I didn’t know. I was all alone.
I was at a place a lot distant from my home. I sat in the shadow of a huge tree, fighting for breath, tasting the blood that had flowed from my cut forehead. I looked around to see where I was. I saw two eyes gleaming at me in the dark. I knew that the eyes were glaring at me. I could not understand anything further. I was terribly tired. I could not even sit. I wanted to drink some water but there was no water at hand. I lay down, my tongue drying up.
After sometime a woman came there with a lighted candle. A small smile was hidden in the corner of her mouth. Shortly the candle went out. She sat, without any haste, her legs stretched out before her, waiting patiently.
Translated from Malayalam by Hema Nair R.