O ruthless Traveller, why did you break with your stories wild
The idol in my heart, the meaning of my life ?
The idol sans any vice, full of naïve wildness,
Adorable, the only one to penetrate my tapasya
Traveller, you never knew — you’ve destroyed
The virgin poem in my heart.
The story begins : once upon a time. . .
Once upon a time, a Reindeer, with the jingling of bells and the twinkling of snow on its hooves, descended from the pages of a Russian folk-tale and entered Varsha’s heart. Varsha used to visit the Children’s Library of the Soviet Cultural House on holidays. The Librarian, surprised to see her reading the same story on all days, told her one day: I can’t understand why you are so obsessed with the Reindeer. Our antelopes are much better than this ugly animal.
As time passed, the Soviet Cultural House was locked up and there was a move to burn the books in the library. A loud social protest was made against it. Varsha, by now a wife and mother, was a bit uneasy that her Colourful book with the story and pictures of the Reindeer might also be burned to a handful of ashes.
And as time thus went by, there came a day when Varsha invoked the Reindeer in her dreams. He came at once.
Reindeer: — What a surprise Varsha! Do you remember me still?
Varsha :— I had never forgotten you. One need remember only those one has forgotten.
Reindeer:— You had indeed forgotten me. I was never in your mind as you roamed about adventurously in your adolescence and youth.
Varsha :— You were there all the time in the corner of my mind.
Reindeer:— Only unwanted memories are thrown into the corners of minds. OK, let us not argue about it. Tell me:, why have you invoked me?
Varsha : — To tell you a happy news. I am planning to come to your country to see you.
Reindeer:— Please do come.
The note of indifference in his words, needless to say, brought down Varsha’s enthusiasm a bit. She was yet to learn that the one who resides in the mind need not necessarily know all that passes through the mind.
The days rolled and rolled and rolled by and one day Varsha found herself in the snow-clad land of the Reindeer.
Filippa listened to her dream-story and said :— The Santa Claus is responsible for all this, for the Reindeer comes to the tropical countries drawing his sleigh. But we who belong to the same place as the Reindeer don’t even think of the animal.
Varsha suddenly had an inherent feeling that Filippa might help her to see the Reindeer. She presented her with a blue silk scarf brought from India.
Filippa :— What a wonderful gift! Thank you friend. But you have just landed here. Usually guests give gifts to the hosts at the end of their stay.
Varsha :— I like to do things the wrong way. For me Last comes before the First. In my language there is even an adjective which means “the head turned the wrong way.”
Filippa :— May I take the liberty to say that it describes you perfectly ? Or else, how could you, living in a tropical country with a lot of strange animals, dream only of the Reindeer?
With that, walls ceased to be between Varsha and Filippa.
Filippa told Varsha that herds of reindeers were there in the open woods in the state zoological gardens. But it would be difficult to see them, for they seldom leave the green foliage.
And then Filippa told her about how one of her friends went to India to see the elephant. The friend had an instinctive feeling that the majestic Indian, elephants with glossy black skin and long white tusks were more masculine than the flat-faced African tuskers with faded hide and broader ears. This friend spent her three years’ savings to go to India for holidays. When she saw the Indian elephant for the first time she had gooseflesh as a virgin meeting a lover. But after a while, wherever she turned, she could see only these pachyderms. They were there drinking water at the public taps, breaking palm leaves from the coconut trees of the house yards, carrying holy burden in the temples and heavy burden in the forests, playing football in the circus.
Finally when the friend came back to her native land, the only emotion left in her was total indifference that ensues alter fulfilment.
We take care that our Reindeers do not become so familiar as to breed contempt, said Filippa. She laughed at her own joke, revealing teeth with ochre- shade. Then she told Varsha :— Let me see i f I can help you to see the Reindeer. The days went by tilI one day Varsha locked herself in her hotel room, refusing to go on the scheduled visit to a museum, for she had a very very personal wound in her heart to nurse. And as she sat enjoying the burning pain of the wound while being sad about it, a telephone call came for her.
I’m Filippa, the voice spoke to her. I called the hotel just the routine way to see if all of you had left. The receptionist told me that only you have not gone. Why, what happened? Are you nostalgic or have you caught a chill? Shall I get you an extra sweater, another coat, or a new pair of stockings?
Varsha:— No, thank you. My body is well-protected. I guess you don’t have anything for hurt minds?
Filippa :— If I had, I would have applied it on my mind first. (After a pause of mutual understanding) OK, I shall be there in half an hour’s time. Come down and wait for me in the lounge. We will go somewhere. Why should you waste such a nice morning, sitting suffocated in that room?
Varsha:— No! Please Filippa, I ’m not in a mood to go out.
Filippa:—Friend, Filippa is a woman who never takes NO from any one. I am coming there and you are coining with rme. Look, I will take you to meet an old friend of mine.
Varsha:— But why should I meet an old friend of yours?
Filippa :— Because she and you have one thing in common — a reindeer- fixation.
And thus Varsha came down to the lounge and waited for Filippa, reclining on the cushioned seating near the fireplace. As she sat thus her mind started fantasising. Filippa’s friend might be keeping a Reindeer at home as a pet. She might be a rich. eccentric lady. Maybe she has written a book about the Reindeers. Maybe she has (grand) children who are crazy about the Reindeer. Maybe she knows a lot of things about the Reindeer.
Of all these possibilities, she liked the first. Imagine meeting a Reindeer family in the garden of Filippa’s friend! Father, Mother and a Child! A happy family! The Father raises his head:
Dear Lady from India, we meet at last!
As she sat dreaming thus, Filippa walked in. Varsha saw with pleasure her gift, the blue silk scarf, that went around Filippa’s neck and dangled on the brown overcoat, making her look more beautiful.
The subway train rushed on and on, carrying the two friends in one of its less-crowded boxes. Varsha recounted to her friend the story of the wonderful Reindeer that entered her heart long long back, coming down from the pages of a Russian folk-tale.
Filippa :— Do you remember the name of the story? I don’t seem to have come across it at all.
Varsha:— I can’t recall the name; but I remember the story. There was a pretty but poor girl in the story. She had to give a certain amount of gold to the Tsar the next morning, or she would be killed. Haunted by the fear of death, the poor girl soaked the night in her tears. Towards dawn, a Reindeer appeared in the clouds. He came down, ran three times in a circle on the snow in front of her hut and disappeared. In the morning, the girl found that wherever his hooves had touched, the snow had turned gold. She gave the gold to the Tsar and appeased him. But the greedy Tsar wanted her to give him pearls and corals. Again the Reindeer came down to save her. It goes on like that till …
Filippa : -— I know. Till the Tsar, taken in by her miracles, marries her. Let a girl reveal her special talent in any field, at once a man would grab her as his bride and put lier to silence. But I am interested in the Reindeer. What happened to him? Wandered lonely as a cloud forever?
Varsha:— Can’t the story have another ending? The Reindeer can be a Prince or a Celestial Being under a curse. The curse may be lifted and he can marry the girl.
Filippa :— Oh, no! They are improbable, wish-fulfilment endings that we have given up. The Tsar has to marry her. Then she need not “create” gold or coral; she need “create” only his children and rest in peace in his harem.
Varsha:— It sounds like a very Indian ending!
Filippa :— It is the realistic ending as far as we women are concerned. They laughed aloud as the subway train stopped at their destination.
While walking hand in hand with Filippa, Varsha noticed the maple leaves shining in twin hue in the cold light. The wind seemed to penetrate her thick coat even sending shivers of cold through her sweater inside. The trees showered cold leaves on them..
Filippa remarked that the winter might set in early that year; it might start to snow before Varsha left. Then Filippa told her about Selma Ekman. Varsha understood the following things about her that —she was an old woman on the other side of seventies, that she worshipped the cold and chill of the snow, that she never closed her window.s except in severe winter, that the temperature outside the house would be the same as the temperature outside, that Filippa had her own fears as to whether Varsha would be able to stand the, cold.
All the weird details made Varsha more convinced than ever that the mysterious lady might be having a Reindeer as a pet. A Reindeer that can turn into gold the snow that fell on her yard.
When Filippa stopped at a Department Store to buy a bottle of champagne, Varsha thought that it was to be a gift for Selma Ekman. How is she to know the real purpose of it till she reaches that particular page of the story?
At last they reached a huge mansion that stood alone in the midst of a rocky land. Beyond the bluish rocks they could see the city that they left behind looming large with its tall spires.
Selma Ekman who opened the door was a very old woman with a as wrinkled and dry as old, worn-out bread. Her thin gray hair was tied up into a neat knot high on her head. She seemed a well-familiar figure to Varsha— perhaps the eccentric old lady found in folk-tales. Mrs. Ekman offered a hearty welcome to Filippa’s friend from India.
Filippa — Aunt Selma, my friend may catch a chill in this cold. Would it be impolite to ask if I may close your windows?
Selma Ekman :—Yes, it would be highly impolite. But you can instead if we shall give something hot to your friend. I will get some really hot drinks that will burn all the way down your throat. Swallow burning torches ward off the cold.
Filippa:—That would be fine with us, but my friend is not used strong drinks. I have brought just the drink for her.
Filippa opened the champagne bottle after shaking it. A flame of champagne erupted from the bottle and darted to the roof. As Varsha watched, a small portion of it came down foaming and showered the deer-face on the marble pedestal.
The deer-face on the marble pedestal! It grinned into silent words:
Dear Lady from India, at last we meet!
Who placed the foaming champagne glass in Varsha’s hand? From where comes the warmth that spreads through her tired body? From which world resound the cheers?
Varsha could see only one face before her a shrivelled one with brown hide and branched horns… with two holes in place of eyes…
Ekman followed her gaze and said:—
Bastard! I shot him down! He killed my husband on a cold night, kicking him about in the snow. My poor, poor Brewer! I took Bremer’s gun and and fired till the last bullet was spent. I watched the bastard falling on the snow and kicking in the air till he died.
Varsha’s eyes refused to leave the round holes on the Reindeer’s skull.
Is the Reindeer’s blood red in colour? If that blood is spilt, will the snowflakes turn red as corals?
He who came down to her from the pages of a children’s story in the Soviet Cultural House! He who ran about in her adolescent dreams scattering gold and pearls at the touch of his hooves! He who sowed death here in the shivering cold of snow!
The one so dear to her though they had never met!
But how could he have . . such a different face here . . . such a totally different face … !
Selma Ekman :—— Filippa, your friend seems to be in another world!
Filippa:— She is simply shocked by your heroic narrative. In her dreams there was a Reindeer the touch of whose feet would turn snow into gold.
Selma Ekman :— Ha! Ha! Ha! How easy it is to dream! Especially about something that you have never seen or known!
It was thus that Varsha escaped from her dreams, or how her dreams escaped from her.
“ What a strange imagination!”, says Philippa. Not Filippa, but another girl.
“ Know this my dear, the Reindeer is a meek and docile deer. It will never kick a man to death. I wonder whether this weird imagination is that of the Character or the Author.”
The Author is silent. Reading into the silence, Philippa has -another doubt :— “ Or is it not a mere Reindeer after all?”
The Author continues to maintain a Discreet silence.
Translated from Malayalam by the author
‘The Reindeer’ is a short story, which was also the title of the short story
collection that won for the author, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award. The author has herseIf translated the tale. In Vol.III No. 1 of SamyuktaIn, Chandrika had published the translated version of her story ‘The Tales of Vetaal’. Chandrika’s tale is of the dream world of Varsha that transmuted reality into fantasy. The ambivalent nature of reality /fantasy is evident in the author’s presentation of the duality of the reindeer – as one who scattered gold and pearls at the touch of his met and as one who also sowed death!
B. CHANDRIKA. Reader, Department of English, All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Popular writer in Malayalam, under the pen name Chandramathi. Has published books in both English and Malayalam. Is the recipient of several awards including katha award for fiction and translation, Odakkuzhal award and the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award.