May the author state something at the outset itself ? This story is purely fictitious. It has no connections whatsoever with people who are simply alive or with people who have escaped unto death. Any semblance to life, if discovered, has to be dismissed at once as a figment of fancy.
The reader is given full freedom to read this story, without any prior sanction from the author, at one sitting or piecemeal. The reader can stop reading now itself and decide not to read it at all. If by any chance you are continuing to read, please do feel free to break the reading wherever you like. Such exorbitant freedom will be given only by Milan Kundera or Italo Calvino or some of our writers who imitate them. You can even edit this story or rewrite any of its paragraphs.
And now, to the “post-modern” story, the adjective intended as a signpost to critics who, otherwise, would attach it only to writers of their choice.
The name of the heroine (or the female hero) has been chosen after a lot of thought and speculation. She is an educated, efficient and experienced modern lady and so outdated rustic names have been discarded. Our lady has passed her M.B.B.S. quite honourably without paying any capitation fee, has gone abroad for higher studies and, like any good-looking Malayali girl who goes abroad for higher studies, has returned with a husband. Her father, Mr. Ramanand Menon had cautioned her while seeing her off to the United States : “Daughter, you may love anyone you feel like loving; but when it comes to marriage, marry only an Indian”. And the obedient daughter loved a Chinese, a Japanese and a Yankee, but married an Indian. In fact she deserves more than full marks for filial obedience for marrying an Indian from her own part of India, ie, Kerala. At present she is the M.D. of a five-star hospital in Kerala, designed and built by her husband who, of course, is an engineer, architect to be precise. For such an efficient lady, less sophisticated names like Bhagavati or Dakshayani will not be adequate. So let her be Jyoti, the beautiful burning flame!
A pinch of symbolism has been added to the choice of the hero’s name. Viswanathan means Lord of the Universe. The signified is God of course, but for the purposes of this story we are taking only a fragment of the universe, a little planet, the Earth! From the beginning of time itself, the rulers of this Earth had been men – 0 Aja, Adam, Allah, the majority of any ministry, the head of the family, etc etc. But the Earth has never belonged to any of them.
Do you suspect a feminist flavour in the story? You may be thinking that Jyoti is the Earth that refuses to be ruled by the Lord. Well, the story has only begun and now even the author cannot see how it is going to be. But readers who sympathise with the feminist cause will be glad to know that Viswanathan is a feminist. His photograph with Simone de Beauvoir, both standing under a leafless trunk in frozen Paris, enjoys the same prestigious position in his drawing room as his wedding photograph. He claims that Betty Friedan has given him a signed copy of The Second Stage. He also claims that Megan Terry has been inspired by him to write one of her famous plays
That story runs like this:
On her way home from Off-Broadway, Megan Terry bought some canned food from a department store. As she resumed driving, Viswanathan took a can from the shopping bag and read aloud the small words:
“Keep Tightly closed in a Cool Dry Place”.
He turned to Megan Terry and said – “This is how we Indians keep our women”.
“Oh?” asked Megan Terry in surprise, laughed, went home, and wrote a play with the title.
Unlike several other feminists, Viswanathan was one in both theory and practice. He does not grumble or pull a longer face if his doctor-wife comes home late, but receives her with a smile. When Jyoti goes for medical seminars, it is Viswanathan who packs her suitcase for her. He even goes to the extent of telephoning the airport to find out the ETA of her flight back home and waiting at the airport with the car. He has time for all these as his office – ‘The Nest: Architect cum Designers. ‘Let us Help you Build your World’ – is never crowded.
On the nights when Jyoti would be late or dining out, Viswanathan would eat his meal alone – – the meal warmed in the micro-wave oven by Santa, the maid – – , come to the balcony, recline on the swinging-cot and be on the look out for Jyoti’s contessa. This used to make the neighbours, especially women, terribly jealous. These women claimed to be feminists but were careful to reach home in time to give their husbands the medicine for diabetes.
Now the author wishes to reveal a truth that is expected to shock the readers: Jyoti is not a feminist! In fact, on 14-5-1986, at Illinois, Jyoti told her friend Adrian Clinton: “I hate all feminists!” Adrian Clinton is not related to President Clinton. Adrian’s “Mom” had been a member of the bra-burning brigade of American feminists. Jyoti had really perplexed her with the story of the Kerala women who fought for the right to cover their breasts.
Jyoti’s neighbours in Indira Gandhi Nagar looked down upon her for her unsympathetic attitude towards their struggle for women’s rights, equality etc. they spread the rumor that Viswanathan was a hen-pecked husband who would even wash Jyoti’s undergarments, of course, in the washing machine. The President of the Butterfly Women’s Association of Indira Gandhi Nagar is said to have remarked to its Secretary, “What’s the need of becoming a feminist if one gets such a husband?”
Jyoti never came to know of any of these stories, for these women showed so sincere a love and respect to her whenever they saw her. Jyoti would have had no time to respond to them, had she heard any of their comments behind her back. Her holidays, very very rare, were spent in the kitchen to make ghee-rice for Viswanathan. He liked it best when it was mixed with fried onions, nuts and raisins and served with salad, pappad and pickle. After a hearty lunch they would enjoy their siesta, go for a movie or opera, dine out and come back home. If even such days were very very rare, how could Jyoti find time to respond to gossip?
The author knows the question that forms itself in the readers’ mind: doesn’t this couple have any child? Well, a great deal of thought has gone into it. To tell you the truth, story-writing makes every author a god, for s/he has the right to play with the lives of the characters, even kill them for sport. For instance, these pens can give/not give/give and take away/any number of children to Jyoti and Viswanathan. The first impulse was to give them one or two kids to be sent to the boarding school in the contemporary fashion. Only then can these children grow up and put their parents in the boarding institutions for the aged. But on second thoughts it was decided not to give them any child. If you have no time to look after your children, and if there is no guarantee that your children will look after you in your old age, why should you bother to have children at all?
So, let Jyoti and Vishwanathan take resort in the oft-heard cliché: We cannot think of anyone coming between ourselves, even if it is our own child.
And thus their days flowed on and on till one day, a team of foreign doctors landed at the airport in response to Jyoti’s invitation. They had come to collaborate with Jyoti in her experiments to extract an antidote for AIDS from our neem or margossa. Jyoti’s days and nights were absorbed by her work in the laboratory (designed by Viswanathan).
Viswanathan too was caught up in Jyoti’s zest initially but soon felt it waning off. Jyoti was preoccupied with all her experiments, dinner parties, Kathakali shows arranged to relax the nerves of the over-working doctors etc. Viswanathan, left all alone, withdrew into his solitary self and poems.
It should have been mentioned earlier that Viswanathan writes poems. He was a known poet during his student days. His poems were obscure only to deconstructionists. “The Lament of the Water-Lily” has received first prize at the State School Youth Festival. It is said that when Viswanathan, an undergraduate student those days, recited in his booming voice a poem written by himself, (beginning “O Sudha, Vasudha, Earth dear ………….) Miss. R. Sudha Devi, Lecturer in Malayalam, got so emotional as to forget the sanctity of the teacher-student relationship. It is also said that nothing untoward happened because of Viswanathan’s self-control. All this may only be a rumour. Anyway, the printer’s ink never had the good fortune to touch Viswanathan’s poems after his college days.
Jyoti does not even know that her husband writes poems!
The author feels the urge of the readers to have a taste of Viswanathan’s Muse and so here is a poem written by him:
|O World, clad in beautiful white,
In you melt the heart and head as one
How far away from the Lord of the World are you!
O my seductive dream, do you know
That the Lord of the World now is
Destitute with no World of his own!
|Please don’t think that all his poems are spontaneous overflow of personal feelings like this. Scathing social criticism can be perceived in some of them. for instance, see P.42 of his diary of poems.
|Clouds! Clouds in the horizon!
The fiery downpour of Union Carbide
Has left them empty, vapourless.
And they stad and wait,
Wait for the birth of the death within
There burns Chernobill; they smile
As the cheese is stained with poison-smoke.
It is quite unfortunate that the critics never get a chance to see or assess them.
Something must have happened on those lonely nights when Viswanathan reclined on the swinging cot and tried to capture the myriads of poems swimming about in the air around him. Chesera, sera. What it is, the author is not certain.
When Jyothi returned to her normal self after seeing off the last member of the medical research team, she was excessively happy. Her research is nearing fruition. Everything is set to exorcise the fiend of AIDS with the magical charm of neem. Now Jyoti has only to put it in the form of a thesis and submit it to the W.H.O. with the slides and video cassettes. International fame, recognitions, awards, world-tours : all are waiting for her. Somewhere in the air she could even feel a Padmashri or Padma (Vi)bhushan.
Jyoti lay with her head resting on Viswanathn’s chest, and babbled on about her future prospects. Slowly she fell asleep, unable to feel his coldness, and saw a dream in her sleep.
Now, don’t ask if anybody would dream without sleeping. Several people, including the author, do it every day. Jyoti, in her sleepful dream, is flying to Sweden to receive the Nobel Prize. The air craft suddenly fell into an air pocket and Jyoti opened her eyes with a start. To her surprise she saw Viswanathan closing the bed room door from outside.
After the initial bewilderment Jyoti got up slowly, and, like any intelligent wife, followed him. She saw Viswanathan going down the stairs to the dining hall. He crossed to the kitchen door which was slightly ajar, like an open invitation. He entered, closed the door behind him and Jyoti heard the click of the lock from within.
It is interesting to speculate what Jyoti would have done had she been an ordinary wife. She could have kicked open the closed door of the kitchen. She could have rolled on the floor hysterically crying and cursing loud enough to wake all the neighbours. Depending on the intensity of the emotions, she could even have tried to commit suicide. Had she decided on suicide, she could have chosen an ugly spectacle of death by hanging from the fan or a beautiful death with an overdose of sleeping pills or even a scientific death by slicing the jugular veins.
But Jyoti did not do any of these!
She paused on the stairs and reflected for a while. The laboratory with its slides, projectors, computers and guinea pigs! The treatise to be written! The innumerable preoccupations in the years to come! In the midst of all these, how could Dr. Jyoti Viswanath find time to cook Sambar and Aviyal, to go to the market to buy fish and vegetables, to fill the empty cans in the store room, to wash the soiled clothes (to sort them and put them in the washing machine, that is), to give manure and water to the plants in the garden, to keep the house dustfree using the hoover, to feed, bathe and brush two Alsatians and three poodles, to look after the numberless love-birds?
No! Santa has to stay!
Santa has been there for years and is now like one of the family, knowing everyone’s likes and dislikes by sheer instinct. A new one in her place would only mean time wasted to train her and, perhaps, problem repeated in another way.
Jyoti came down the stairs with shaky steps, opened the refrigerator and drank one whole bottle of chilled mineral water. She stood for a minute, looking at the closed kitchen door, uneasy feelings stirring deep within.
— Viswanath, how can you … the momentary weakness was ruthlessly suppressed by Jyoti who went up the stairs, the time with firm steps.
The readers may be knowing how difficult it is to get servants now a days and so they may find Jyoti’s decision wise and practical. Those readers who find it difficult to think so are free to re-write the end of the story in whatever way they like.
Translated from Malayalam by the author
CHANDRIKA BALAN. Popular short story writer in Malayalam better known by her pen name Chandramathy. Teaches English at the All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Was Executive Editor of the Volume Medieval Indian Literature, published by the Central Sahitya Akademy. Has published collections of her short stories. Has also published several research articles in Malayalam and English in national and international publications