There was a window in that room, a window that was only the size of a small mirror. The room was also a house in which four people lived. The room was home to Maniamma and her children. The rays of the sun entered the room through the small window and fell on the sleeping Devi, curled up on the floor. She smiled in her sleep as if she had seen a beautiful dream. She turned over and settled more comfortably. On mats beside her, two boys were asleep too. Though drenched in sweat, they were curled under a sheet.
Maniamma, who came in then, looked angrily at the sleeping Devi and went up to her. From the red plastic pot that she had hitched on her hips, some water fell on the floor. This increased her anger. Kicking Devi with her squat, fat legs, she shouted, ‘Get up, Devi! It is late.’ Her voice echoed in the small room. Devi jumped up, rubbing the part she had been kicked in, complaining, ‘It hurt, Amma.’
‘Get up. I have already brought in four pots of water. Can’t get up, can you? Lazy bones!’ Placing the pot in the corner of the room, Maniamma raised her voice. She had a wonderfully booming voice. She could raise it to any pitch. Devi always remarked that if she had used the voice to sing in films, they would have had a great deal of money. Yet Maniamma had never put her voice to use except to counter her children, especially Devi. At night Devi often prayed to Murugan, to still her mother’s voice. It was so distasteful to her. Yet everyday, she woke hearing her mother’s yell. She would then decide that she would never pray to Murugan again. But at night, she would call him again. ‘Are you getting
up or not?’ Maniamma asked, tying up her hair as she looked belligerently at Devi, head lowered and with legs apart like a bull about to charge. ‘Oh, please don’t, don’t please, Amma. I’m gone.’ She jumped up and raced to the door. She hid behind the door, just her head was visible as she laughed, ‘You look like a giraffe!’ she then hopped on the verandah.
She had visited the zoo with Indira Akka one day. That was when she discovered how similar the giraffe and her mother were. Devi made fun of her mother saying that the only difference was that the giraffe had four legs instead of two and that she was duck footed. She always walked around the house with her sari and skirt hitched up to her knees to beat the heat. Devi always laughed at the way she sat, when she cooked food for the family. ‘How many eggs did you lay, today?’ Devi would ask. At first she did not understand what Devi meant. ‘You look like a duck about to lay eggs, when you sit like that,’ Devi would explain before taking to her heels. By the time she had grabbed a knife and chased after her, Devi would be three houses away making faces at her from the safety of the distance. She would scream. ‘What kind of a girl are you? You are sixteen. Look at the way you are rushing about. You act like a child of ten!’ Maniamma would rage. Her boys were treasures. They never called her a giraffe or a duck. They obeyed her. They never pulled faces at her.
Maniamma believed that when they grew up, her sufferings would cease. Her mind played for her, the images of her sons as grownups sporting mustaches. She dreamt that they would buy silk saris for her, give her lots of money and take her to Palani and Thirupathi. She did not see Devi lying without a sheet to cover her; the sons wrapped up in a sheet engrossed her. Around Devi, she substituted a dark impenetrability. Devi felt that her mother loved only her brothers. She often told Devi, ‘When I grow old, they will be the ones who’ll take care of me. You are a girl. You will go away. You were a headache from the moment you were born.’ ‘Are you talking about me? I give you two hundred rupees every month, don’t I? Your sons are not going to look after you at all. Only I will be there for you,’ Devi would curse.
It was not that Maniamma did not love Devi. She was afraid when she looked at Devi. She was growing older with each day that passed. She was big for her age. Every night, Maniamma thought of Devi and lost
her sleep. Not just during the night, she could not sleep during the day too. The children were another matter. They slept like logs. Maniamma discarded her sari at night. It was not just a matter of heat. She had no other sari to change into. She walked outside the hut some nights, when she could not sleep. It was on one such night that she met Sundaram. Sundaram had bought saris and skirts for her but he did not want her to wear the sari when he visited. He said that she did not look as if she was the mother of three children for her tummy was flat and her hips slim. He said he would never tire of holding her waist.
Devi was not dark like Maniamma. She was fair and pretty. She had waist length long dark hair. Her smile revealing pearly even teeth was attractive. Her eyes were wide and beautiful. Devi knew that she was very beautiful. She made a beeline for the mirror whenever she could. She applied kohl on her eyes and fixed a huge bindi on her forehead. She would arrange her hair to her satisfaction and dart her eyes here and there, checking it all out in the mirror. She acted like the heroine of a film murmuring and posturing before the mirror.
Maniamma did not like Devi’s behaviour. When she noticed Devi’s gestures in front of the mirror, she stopped taking her to the movies. Though she was extremely poor and did not have a square meal a day, Maniamma would see all the movies that came to the theatres—Sivasakthi and SreeValli. She went in for the one rupee ticket and had to sit right in the front. Sometimes she saw the same movie, several times over. One day Devi vowed, ‘Even if you do not take me to the movies, I will see them.’ She watched the cassettes that the people in whose house she worked, took to see. On Sundays and Saturdays, she watched the movies in the TV at Naidu’s house. She went to Naidu’s house, all decked out with flowers in her hair. Naidu’s eighteen year old son watched her in fascination. She watched the movies but was conscious of his eyes on her. At times, she would steal a look at him. She felt herself grow breathless and excited and slowly realized that the new emotions were exhilarating.
Whenever she saw Devi going out, all decked up, Maniamma was worried. Worry made her angry. She felt that Devi did not realize that she was a domestic servant. She bathed and washed her clothes everyday. ‘Aren’t you going to wash vessels and scrub floors?’ Maniamma would
roar. Devi would laugh, ‘I am not a giraffe like you.’ Whenever she could, she would kick Devi or beat her. Yet she loved her too. She always tried to buy whatever Devi wanted. One day Devi demanded that she be given a pair of silver anklets. She bought a pair of steel anklets for her. Devi was disappointed as the anklets were made of steel. Maniamma could not afford the silver ones and hid her grief in anger against Devi. After putting them on, Devi liked the tinkle of the anklets so much that she took to dancing as in film sequences. Devi began to comb her hair after having washed her face. ‘Oh God, is it eight already? Indira Akka will scold me now.’ Devi told Maniamma. ‘You need not go to work today,’ Maniamma said. ‘Why?’ asked Devi. Maniamma did not reply. Instead she lit the stove and pumped it. ‘Why Amma? Why am I not to go?’ By this time Devi had finished plaiting her hair. She put on her sandals and was stepping out of the house when Maniamma saw her. In a minute, she sprang after her and dragged her in. ‘That maama will come.’ Maniamma said softly. ‘Which maama?’ Devi hated that her hair was all disarranged. ‘Sundara maama.’ When she heard the name, she started. She was frightened whenever she saw him. She was scared of the way his eyes bore into her. She had seen him talk to her mother on the road and near their home. When she saw his cycle by the roadside, she hid somewhere. His dark looks, oil slick hair and frightening looks raised disgust in her. Whenever she saw him, she compared him with Naidu’s son. How handsome that anna was. His glances! In contrast was this wild bull! She wouldn’t even say his name – Sundaram.
In anger she asked, ‘Why should I stay here if he is coming?’ ‘He said he will take you to Maruthumala koil.’ ‘I don’t want to go anywhere with that savage.’ ‘He will buy bangles, ribbons and silver anklets for you.’ ‘I don’t want anything.’ ‘He said he will . . . he will marry you.’ ‘What? Amma . . . ’ Devi began to cry in earnest. Maniamma also began to weep. ‘My treasure, it’s because Amma has no other option.’ ‘Don’t lie. I give you the two hundred rupees that I earn, don’t I? Don’t be so greedy.’
Devi began to sob. ‘Maama will marry you. He will buy you all that you want.’ ‘What’s all this hullabaloo about?’ Neither of them noticed Sundaram who had arrived. ‘Shall we go?’ Pressing Devi’s shoulder,
Sundaram asked. Devi coiled in fear and her eyes popped. Sundaram pressed against Devi, eying Maniamma suggestively. Maniamma turned away murmuring, ‘Go Devi, go to Maruthumala and pray to God.’
Sundaram pressed Devi’s tender body against his own. Sniffing her hair, he said, ‘You must put some flowers in your hair. Here Maniamma. When we get back, make some rice, some sambhar and rasam.’ He took some money out of his pocket and threw it before Maniamma. ‘Don’t be frightened, my precious. I will buy you silver anklets, a silk skirt and whatever else you desire. I will even marry you. You are as beautiful as a film star.’ Holding Devi close, he stepped out.
It was after they disappeared from sight that Maniamma picked up the currency notes lying scattered about her. She sat like a duck even after she had picked them up. Her eyes filled with tears. She began to cry aloud after sometime.
“Theerthayathra” (Mounathinte Naanarthangal. Ed. N.K. Raveendran. Thrissur: Haritham Books, 1993: 119-127), translated by Hema Nair R.
SHOBA VARYAR. She is a freelance writer and columnist. She has to her credit two short story collections. Her stories speak of the trauma women face. Marked by poignancy, her stories grip the reader.
HEMA NAIR R. Teaches English at the N.S.S. College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Doris Lessing. A regular contributor to research journals. Interested in Women’s Studies.