When his arms stretched towards her naked underbelly, she pushed them roughly away.
‘Don’t touch me,’ she hissed.
‘What if I touch you?’
‘You don’t have the right to.’
‘Am I not your husband?’
‘Why? Do you have doubts about it? Has anyone else tied a thali around your neck?’
‘A man doesn’t become a husband merely by tying a thali.’
‘It’s not that I don’t know it. But you don’t allow me anything.’
Hateful man! She gritted her teeth. Did he really not understand what his words meant? Or was he merely pretending?
It was almost a month since their marriage. Yet she didn’t know anything about him. Was this the way to get married, anyway? He came to see her and she served him tea. Their horoscopes matched perfectly. It seems her horoscope was one that didn’t match easily with any! Now she understood one thing. Life with him was impossible. It didn’t need many days to realise that. The sheer compatibility of their incompatibilities! The rhythm of anklets was simply unknown to him.
‘What are you thinking about?’
She started and turned around. His heavy hands were on her shoulders, For some unknown reason, she felt afraid. But without losing courage, sh replied:
‘About my rotting life.’
She pretended not to see the embers in his eyes. But she couldn’t help hearing, when he bellowed.
‘What is wrong with you? What is it that I lack? Am I not handsome? Don’t I have an income? What more do you want?
She did not give a reply. Looking out of the window, she directed her gaze towards the banks of the river. She heaved a sigh on seeing the joyful antics of a young couple. Her husband too was looking at them. He turned and said, ‘Look, did you see them? They are so happy.’
‘One needs luck in such things. He may be a husband who understands his wife.‘
‘What is it that I don‘t understand?’
‘Didn’t you tell me not to dance anymore?’
‘Oh, is that such a big issue? I only said what any husband would say.’
‘ Didn’t you know in the beginning that I was a dancer?’
‘I didn’t know that both the mother and the daughter were nautch girls.’
‘Can’t you speak more decently?’
‘How can I be more decent than this? What my mother said was right after all. I realise it now.’
‘And, pray, what did you mother say?’
’My son fell for the girl’s fair looks.’
‘Do you have regrets now?’
‘I can’t stand guard like a watchdog anymore, while the mother and the daughter perform.’
‘Who asked you to be a watchdog? Can’t you be a good husband?’
‘A good husband! How long have I been hearing this! Can you tell me how you define ‘a good husband’ ?’
‘Should I tell you? Isn’t your not knowing itself the biggest problem?’
‘Let me ask you something. Has there been any husband who permitted
his wife to perform a dance publicly, the very next day after marriage?’
‘Thank you for your large -heartedness and generosity. It was a programme I had promised three months earlier. Didn’t I fall at your feet so that I could avoid embarrassment? But did that bring any shame upon you?
‘I was squirming in my seat. The people sitting near me were commenting on how the dancer’s body shook and quivered.’
She felt like crying. These were her honeymoon days and nothing came from him — either a word or a touch— that sent her into an ecstasy. Only complaints about losses in his business. He said there was no need for such a trip! Gains and losses were all that came to his lips, even while snoring. She felt a sense of revulsion, seeing him curled up with his head on the crook of his arm and his month half open.
As the moon shone, she felt like going out at least to convince others. It was their third night at this holiday resort. Perhaps they were the only couple not to stir out of their room. Her head drooped at the thought. She saw moonlight dancing on the river. Joy danced on the face of this new bride standing on the banks.
‘Let us go out.’
The husband started at her unexpected statement. He looked as happy as a child who had suddenly been given a gift. You foolish man, you don’t really know me.
As she stood there, she felt an urge to enter the river. And as she went in, she wanted to lie submerged in the water. The memory of a winter month came flooding into her mind. Her husband called her back. ‘Hey, don’t go there. It’s dangerous,’ he called out loudly. She felt scorn for him. The red signboard shone in the moonlight :
The river is enticing. But it is suicidal to bathe here. Please do not take the risk.
A smile spread on her lips and vanished. At that moment, she felt hatred even towards her mother who had tied the anklets on her legs when she was only ten. The river invited her. Come here and keep me company. Let me doze, listening to the music of your anklets. The waves tickled her ankles. She felt ecstatic. An experience she had never known before. She understood. Her heart overflowed. The coolness of the river enveloped her ….
Translated from Malayalam by P Radhika
E. P. Sushama (1964-’96) was widely considered a promising short story writer in Malayalam but her literary career was rudely cut off by fate when she was yet in her prime. She wrote about 25 stories, nearly half of which were broadcast over the radio. Several of them were published in various Malayalam journals. All her 25 stories and some articles as well as letters were compiled and published after her death under the title Kathavillaaymakal (1996). Ms Sushama won several awards for her short stories: the Ankanann Award, the Grihalekshmi Award and the prestigious Shrimati Lalithambika Antharjanam Memorial Special Literary Award, given posthumously in 1996.
There is a vein of sadness running through most of Sushama’s stories— a sadness that arises largely out of misunderstanding: the society misunderstands the individual (‘Vasundhara’, ‘Kathayillaaymakal’); there is misunderstanding between married partners’ (‘Puzha’), between individuals (‘Lajjayillaathavar’, ‘Vazhikal Piriyunnu’), between parents and children (‘Nizhalukale Pinthudarunnavar’) and so on. Sushama’s stories also touchingly present the agony of essentially well-meaning people who are denied what they desperately yearn for — children (‘Makal’), longer life (‘Astharnayarn’), marriage (‘Spandanam’, ‘Anuradha Karayunnu’), etc.
‘Puzha’ (The River) dramatises a newly married girl’s growing disillusionment with her spouse. This may be a cliched theme but what infuses a sense of novelty to the story is the technique Sushama employs. The River’ epitomises minimalism — in setting, characters, situation and dialogue. There is little superfluity in it and this tightness is the factor that gives the story a spartan artistic beauty.
P. RADHIKA. Teaches English at the Fatima Mata National College, Kollam. Recipient of UGC Senior Research Fellowship. Has contributed articles to numerous research journals. Interested in translating. Is Assistant Editor, Samyukta.