The festival on Thirumandham Hill was at its peak. The sacred deity was being ceremoniously carried forth. Seven elephants, a traditional orchestra of five types of instruments, and a milling crowd. The sun blazed off the gilded head dresses of the elephants making them glow. The fringed bud that went down to the tip of the elephants’ trunk swayed right and left…, the attendants of the elephants stood holding their tusks. The Thirumandham Hill goddess, atop the principal elephant Kesavan, looked at the devotees and blessed them.
The orchestra reached a crescendo, the drums started the beat.
Between it all, my attention wandered elsewhere. A lady was standing amidst the crowd absorbed in the orchestra. In age, she was past her middle years. Her hair, put up behind, had begun to grey here and there. The body had picked up flab. Black framed glasses covered her eyes and her face looked flushed in the heat. She was dressed in a red bordered white sari and a white blouse. In her hand was an old cloth umbrella with wooden handle. At first glance, she reminded me of the heroine of an English play I saw years ago.
Amidst all that chatter of local gossip and merry-making, there she was, standing alone, enjoying the orchestra. Her expression made clear that she had an excellent sense of rhythm. That any woman could savour orchestra with such absorption was new to me. I looked at her once again. Even in such a bustle, she had woven a circle of solitude around herself, and stood in it all alone. Her striking dignity invited the question, “Who is she?” from anyone. A halo seemed to surround her.
I had been transferred to that township only ten days ago and had not quite got to know the place. I asked Madhavan, who was with me: “Who is that lady there?”
“Don’t you know? Durga Devi, the novelist.” “Oh, is it she?”
His remark deepened the look of reverence on my face even further: “Couldn’t you see that in her bearing? What dignity! Very knowledgeable about temple orchestras.” After that my eyes did not turn to the elephants; or to the Thirumandham Hill deity’s idol shinning on one of them. My attention was fixed on Durga Devi – on her extremely dignified bearing!
The percussion ended the orchestra. Then the gun salute.
The crowd was in a hurry to disperse. I pushed my way towards Durga Devi. I stood there and looked at her face. One eye behind the thick glasses was lifeless. What? implant eye?
“What if one eye is missing? A thousand eyes illumine her mind.” Did I voice my thought too loud? I saw her quiet smile. Before I got a chance to ask her anything, she hastened down the granite steps and left.
I was sorely disappointed.
That was my first encounter with her – like the curtain-raiser to a kathakali performance. Even after these many years, my mind has not lost that vision.
It was Madhavan who sought my presence at the sixteenth death anniversary celebration of novelist Durga Devi.
“Would she tolerate such mockeries?”
“Stop protesting. Just do what I say. Won’t people blame us if we don’t do even this much?”
I had to obey Madhavan’s injunction.
Who am I to novelist Durga Devi? I cannot even claim to be one among her hundreds of admirers. I have never worshipped her with
offerings of flowers. Nor have I touted her around on my shoulders. On the other hand, I have habitually criticised her books. At the time when Camila was published, the book enjoyed great publicity. Readers welcomed it enthusiastically. Critics praised it; some even considered it Durga Devi’s masterpiece. It told the story of an arrogant man with a jaundiced mind.
There was only one colour before his eyes – yellow. Whatever he touched turned yellow. That indelible dirty yellow finally gnaws away his very self.
I had never till then experienced such exalted notion about the human mind. Even so, I questioned her depiction. How did the Camila character come to claim so much compassion? At the end of the book, even as the reader revolted against his cruelty, he also sympathized with him. One who arrogantly insisted on destroying anything that was not his, was he to affect the readers so much as to elicit a ‘poor man’ response? Isn’t the author forgetting her duty? Many times have I sifted through such arguments in my mind. Author Durga Devi’s calm and collected response then seemed to reach me, from between the lines: Is there any use in asking a wild boar to sing a melody? Don’t we know for certain that a koel cannot growl? As for humans, we hold within us, the wild boar and the koel, the doe, the donkey and the pigeon. We forget that.
The sweet essence of that truth stayed with me. It turned embryonic, then grew. My muscles relaxed to let it grow.
That was when I saw the advertisement for another book by Durga Devi – Vinduja. I went to the bookstall, got the book, and read it at one sitting. Once I pick up a book by Durga Devi, I never stop in the middle. With Vinduja, instead of stopping in the middle, I went back to the beginning from the middle. Though the book was highly readable, there seemed a certain lack of clarity in it. Should I seek clarification from the author herself? I decided against and went back to the first page.
She was talking of human relationships: that the beauty and colour of relationships is a product of imagination. She said, they are the silk shawls that wrap up the hand grenade. A spark is enough to burn the shawl and to ignite the bomb.
“Nonsense, utter nonsense.” I dropped the book and blurted out
Such a train of thought from a novelist? To say that even the feelings of children for their mother are rooted in selfishness… I wrote a strong review of the book that day itself – that those who should be smoothing and cementing human relationships are breaking them is unpardonable.
And it came out in a prestigious weekly. Four days later, by chance, I happened to meet Durga Devi sitting alone by the Puthan Lake, watching the waves set up by the breeze. Durga Devi was in the habit of doing so. Once I have seen her stand looking idly at an empty field, for a long time, as if she had stepped into a self-made ant-hill vault.
When I approached her, she smiled. Her face indicated I sit beside her. I sat down.
“I read the review”, she said. What next? I wondered anxiously.
“Without getting too agitated and emotional, try giving it some calm thought. One can get to understand the truth only if one is divorced from emotion. When a mother looks at her son, she does not see the true individual that is the son. To see him as the world sees him, she has to set aside the maternal perception.”
“But wouldn’t that harm the society?” “What harm?”
“If human attachments do not stand…?”
Novelist Durga Devi gave a loud laugh as she straightened herself.
She extracted a letter from the book beside her, and gave it to me. “You may read it. It came in yesterday’s mail.”
I read it: A critic’s opinion of Vinduja.
“I realize that truth is not the star twinkling far away in the sky. It is the sunlight that walks with us, gives us clear vision and helps us build mutual trust without any false gilding. When non-existent halos are bestowed on relationships, love and duty get disfigured. Thank you.”
I did not say anything, and returned the letter. After a few steps forward, I looked back. She had turned again to the waves in the lake. Something serious was occupying her thoughts.
Durga Devi was much like her stories, not easily comprehensible. Demonstrative welcomes and effusive embraces were not offered to anybody. Yet those who knew her intimately could well understand that the spring of love was ever present within her.
One evening when I visited her at her house, there were three or four women from elsewhere standing in the portico. As I hesitated at the door, the hostess herself came forward:
“ Come in. Do come in.”
She introduced me to her guests. “They all work without salary for social welfare – all spokespersons for women’s liberation.”
“Yes, meaning not practitioners.” “Why do you say so, Durga?”
One of the guests, a female form, six foot tall with a girth to match, objected in a grave voice: “Instead of strengthening women, aren’t you folk working to turn them masculine? In course of time, feminine graces and principles will disappear from the face of the earth. Masculine voice will pervade everywhere – male aspect alone universally!”
Even though all the others nodded their heads in agreement, I felt rather uncomfortable. Something sharp seemed to be grating through Durga Devi’s words.
I have not seen Durga Devi at any public function. That she had no dearth of words, everybody knew. Nor did she lack deep knowledge of subjects. Even so, she evaded those who came to invite her with:”Please spare me.”
“Everybody wishes your presence. There will be no difficulty. We will come with a car to escort you. An hour is all that is needed.”
I have not seen her give in to such temptations. Once, she said lightly: “I am more at ease with readers than listeners.”
“Please come over, when you receive this postcard.”
It was at noon that I got her letter. I did not know why I was being invited. Even so I went there. On the portico sat distinguished guests.
Major literary figures representing Bengal, Andhra, Assam, Orissa . . . They had all come to the small state of Kerala at the southern tip, to meet Durga Devi; to honour her literary splendour.
Durga Devi was her usual self. In her natural, simple manner, she spoke of the similarity between Kerala and Bengal, the likeness of conventions between Andhra and Kerala. It was then that she saw me at the door. She hastened to me and presented me before the illustrious crowd: “You will hear his voice tomorrow, or the day after!”
I was thrilled when I faced them.
That day I had another unforgettable experience too – much as a little carved box would scarce understand the tree it came from.
When I got off the bus with Madhavan and walked on, a foreign made car drew up beside us. Madhavan looked into the car and said softly, “It’s Durga Devi’s son.”
“Oh.” I felt an instant affinity with him. Stepping up to the car, I asked: “Novelist Durga Devi’s son…” I was not allowed to complete the sentence. Still seated in the car, he looked out and interrupted: “Don’t set such a headband on my face. I am Kumar, from California. A university professor there. Then he looked at his wife nestling against him and told her:”In these parts, it is mother’s horoscope that is laid out first. Don’t I have any identity?”
I stared at his face, and walked straight on. I wanted to ask him, “What sort of self-born nut are you?”
But I restrained myself.
I wondered: how could he know the greatness of novelist Durga Devi? In one way, he was quite correct in what he said. He had no claim to that relationship.
How many, many incidents! It was two months ago. Critic Appukuttan’s essay had come out in the weekly criticizing writer Durga Devi, right and left, far more than the novelist’s work. Reading it, my blood boiled. That was no review. It was a conscious personal indictment.
I immediately turned out a response. Made the language as strong as possible. Before sending it for publication, I thought I would show it to
Durga Devi. I eagerly walked into her house. Durga Devi was writing something with great concentration. But she immediately read the four pages I laid before her. Her glance rested on my face for an instant. Then she said gently, almost like a caress: “Why waste time so? Think of bigger matters. I have known Appukuttan since he walked in diapers. Poor man, he has no enmity for me. His wife is transferred to Kannur. I am just writing a plea to Srinivasan to spare her the move. He is the minister concerned at present, you know. In any case, I have to make Srinivasan do it.
She tore up into little bits all four pages of my offering and put them in the basket.
How true only those who have lofty thoughts and grandeur of imagination can create masterpieces! They meditate devoutly, so they can tell the story of mankind.
My work had kept me in Hyderabad for quite sometime. I fell ill there. When I recovered and got back, my prime anxiety was to go and see Durga Devi.
That’s when Madhavan intervened: “It’s such a sad state.” “What happened?” Foreboding knocked.
“She is bedridden. Acute diabetes.” “Oh?”
“So sad there’s is nobody to take care of her.” “Nobody? Doesn’t she have a son, of sorts?”
“I believe the son is inclined to come and care for her. But does his mistress of the seventh house agree? That lady was already suffering from mother-in-law allergy. Not to speak of it now. A Red Cross nurse is engaged to take care of her.”
I slumped on the floor. What was I hearing! It is said that poets are prophets. True?
I hastened to be at Durga Devi’s side as soon as possible. When I knocked, a woman in a white sari came and opened the door. To her questioning look I said authoritatively: “I want to see novelist Durga
Devi,” and walked in with no by-your-leave to the nurse. It was a place I had walked in and out of many times. A place I was permitted to walk in any time of day or night. Durga Devi was lying in her study room. I could not believe the one lying on the bed was the same person I had seen five or six months ago.
“Who is it?” she asked without turning her head. “It’s me.”
“Oh, you have come? I did not inform you deliberately – with your indifferent health.” Durga Devi’s voice had not lost its gravity. Good. But she did not turn her head nor look at me directly.
“I thought it was the journalists who had come to find out how many seconds were left for Durga Devi’s death. Each one is vying with the others to announce the news first.
She attempted a laugh. Then raised her emaciated hands and groped the air.
“What? Has she lost her sight?” I hurried up to her and caught her hands.
“So you understand. I had already lost one eye earlier. All that’s happened is that I have lost the other too.” I sat listening in grave silence.
“In truth, I was waiting for you, you know? I knew you would come.” My hold on her limp hands lying in my palm, tightened. “I know a very learned guru. I cannot quite describe the simplicity of his nature. But even a cold in the nose would set him wailing aloud his fear: ‘I am going to die. Oh, it is time for me to die.’ Death was scared of him and slunk around for several days. Then suddenly it swooped on him and carried him away. He lay down to sleep – and did not wake up.”
She stopped. Then too, I did not say anything. Did she think that Death was standing beside her?
“Do you feel sorry for me? Do you think I am alone?”
“No. Isn’t there this bookshelf full of books? So many of them by novelist Durga Devi herself!”
“Yes. That’s absolutely right. They are my progeny, my rightful heirs who should do my death rites. And through them too, will come my immortality!” My mind felt a compulsive urge to set aside everything, just to take care of her.
“I will come early tomorrow.”
“I long to listen to Kalidas’ slokas. Come prepared to recite them for me tomorrow.”
Durga Devi idly turned her head towards me, as if out of habit. I looked at the wall shelf, at the rows of books by Durga Devi. They seemed to say: “Go in peace, we are here . . .”
At night the phone rang persistently and woke me up. I picked up the receiver: “Novelist Durga Devi is no more. It is likely that she passed out in her sleep”, said Madhavan’s muted voice. I had only one regret, I could not recite Kalidasa’s slokas for her. Even so, I was not depressed. Death should also be timely. In any case, she would not have wailed like her learned guru. I did not go again to see the corpse that disease had picked clean.
After the death, condolence meetings and celebratory processions followed in great pomp. Thereafter her devotees could conveniently forget her. But Durga Devi’s heavenly voice was sure to be with me forever. I felt I should do something to perpetuate her memory. An author sure lives through her books. Camila had gone out of print. I wanted to have another print brought out.
I went to Durga Devi’s house on hearing that her son had come down from California. I wanted to get him to sign the contract. When I reached, some serious discussions were going on. It sounded like a bargaining. I listened:
“We will make alterations here. We have got to satisfy our viewers.”
“You do whatever you like. The amount should not be less. We must get our seven lakhs.”
Durga Devi’s son had sold the reprint rights of Camila for seven lakhs. Rage and desperation boiled in my head.
“What if I face that monkey and give him a proper lashing?”
But novelist Durga Devi’s voice came to me from somewhere deep within: “Poor man, Poor man!”
Before that gracious benevolence, my head bowed.
(The original in Malayalam is titled “Kraanthadarshi”. Chiranjeevi.
Trivandrum: Prabhat, 2000).
Translated by Sreedevi K. Nair
K.B. SREEDEVI. She is a novelist as well as a short story writer. She has more than thirteen works to her credit which include Yajnam, Munnam Thalamura (Third Generation), Daasaradham (Pertaining to Dasaradha), Chaanakkallu (Touchstone), Chiranjeevi (Eternal Man) and Agnihotram. Her deep interest in the epics and the myths of Kerala results
in her re-reading of those texts from a unique perspective and that gives to her stories a charm that is distinctive. She has represented a few quiet but strong women characters with a capacity to think and act independently. Her research works include a study on the short stories of Malayalam women writers and another on the contributions made by
ancient Gurukulas to Kerala culture. In 1974, she received the Kumkumam Award for Yajnam and in 1998, the Janmaashttami Award for Krishnaanuraagam (Love for Lord Krishna). In 1975, for the screenplay based on her story Niramaala, she received the Kerala State Film Award for the
best story and script.
SREEDEVI K. NAIR. is Associate Professor of English, NSS College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Her interest areas are Translation Studies and Women’s Writing. All the stories in this issue of Samyukta are translated by her.