Her sound resembled that made by rusted hinges. A violet coloured vein stood out challengingly on her wrinkled neck. Straightening her spectacles a bit, the old woman asked without any particular introduction, ‘Do you write, dear?’
The girl did not answer. She simply looked at her. Quite by chance, her eyes rested on the old woman’s head. Half of her scalp was visible. However, there were some stray black strands here and there.
‘There was a meeting which Vallathol1 attended… before independence…’ the old woman said.
On pronouncing the word ‘independence’ her artificial teeth set jutted out pathetically. The girl felt a kind of revulsion. As if to hide her uneasiness, she twisted and turned the folds of the light blue shawl of her churidar.
‘What was independence in those days, weren’t all literally mad over it? The nylon and nylex clothes were all burned. We would wear only khadar. I had a sari with a black border. Even wearing sari was very fashionable….’
The girl shifted her glance to the book shelf since it vexed her to watch the old woman push her teeth set back to its original position with her tongue.
On the topmost rack of the shelf were some old framed photos. A black and white photo of someone garlanding somebody at a reception towered authoritatively over the others. The rest appeared moth-eaten, water stained family photos. On the second and third racks, there were only a few notebooks.
The girl looked once again at the old woman inadvertently. ‘I wrote a poem when valiammama asked me to… read it at the meeting, “the sweet scent of the flowers of imagination in our humble gardens too….’’ ’
When she uttered the word ‘sweet scent’ the old woman’s teeth set protruded. In her effort to sing the poem tunefully, her cracked sound strained quite a lot. It became a groan as if somebody had laid a stranglehold on her throat.
‘The mahakavi…’ she joined her hands in salutation with awe and respect as if she saw Vallathol before her. ‘He called me to him, kept both his hands on my head and blessed me, “Saraswathi, Saraswathi 2 herself….” ’
The old lady tenderly stroked her own head which Vallathol’s hands had touched. The girl discovered with chagrin that there were other black strands beneath her grey hair.
The room smelt of a sandalwood stick which had long since burned down. A hot breeze madly entered the room, creating havoc. A steel flask on the table with its faded table cloth, shivered lightly. The ounce glass nearby fell down and rolled. The smell of some medicine immediately filled the air.
In spite of all this, the girl had developed a liking for this room, filled with many smells. She thought that this must be the most airy room in this house.
‘I was just nine years old then…’ the old woman was reminiscing.
But not like the present-day girls. Had the growth of a sixteen year old. My husband 3 had seen me at that meeting and….’ She abruptly put an end to what she was saying, then carefully broke off a white thread that stood out at the edge of her neriyatu. She was wearing a mundu and neriyatu with a thin red border. Her white blouse crumbled here and there, possibly due to age.
The old woman got up as if greatly perturbed. It was towards the shelf in the corner of the room that she moved unsteadily. She sat down on a chair near the shelf and leafed through each book in avid concentration. The girl had the feeling that the chair was a permanent fixture there and it was habitual for the old woman to sit there and take down the books.
‘Not this… it is a book with a red cover,’ opening a book, the old woman said with great vigour. The girl shuddered. When the old woman ruffled the book again, the fine dust rising up made the girl want to sneeze. It was without the least sympathy that the old woman looked at the girl then.
‘Me too had this, at times….’ She opened another book. ‘Wasn’t that why that book was lost? Due to this sneezing, I had grown too lazy to keep the old newspapers, children’s books and such things in order… it was amidst all this… this book somewhere, somehow… my husband would get angry if any old paper was seen anywhere around… everything should be kept in order. No paper or dust was to be seen anywhere in the room. The room was to be swept clean always.’ Her breath shivered. ‘Who could foresee that such a need would arise in old age?’
That touched the girl’s heart. It was right, who could see…? She closed that book and took another. ‘When I wrote the first story my husband was in jail. Those were days when communists were arrested on sight.’ On saying ‘story’ the old woman’s false teeth shook horribly.
The girl got up in irritation and went to the window. She tried to smoothen the strands of hair fallen on to her face in the strong breeze that had blown in again. The sindoor she had put on her simantarekha in the morning, soaked in the sweat stuck to her finger. It clung there for a second like a drop of blood. Then slowly fell down and died. The old woman was opening yet another note book.
‘Ramankutty’s old note book. The story written in the light of a lamp lit at the corner of this room, away from the sight of the mother of this house. The mother here used to get enraged if she saw someone reading or writing. What use would it be to the family, she’d ask.’
She turned the pages of the book slowly. ‘When he said that he liked the girl who read the poem at the meeting, it seems that created a furore. Isn’t that right? What use are stories and poems? Like mother says, girls should cook, give birth to babies….’
She turned the pages slowly.
‘My husband was the one who named Ramankutty. He said let him grow like Rama. I liked the name Ravindranath then. Then I thought, let his wish be. Why simply quarrel? Whether Ravindranath or Ramankutty, isn’t my son my own? So I did not think of any name for Srikutty. He named her Sreekumari …. I had told Ramankutty, when you have children, if it is a boy, name him Ravindranath and if a girl, Mrinalini. Isn’t Ravindranath, Tagore’s name? Tagore’s wife is Mrinalini….’
When it was time to say ‘Mrinalini’ the girl hastily looked out.
Even so, the girl had started feeling a kind of kinship with the old woman.
‘The first story was about a lady who went to jail in the struggle for independence.’ When the word ‘independence’ was spelt, the girl pursed up her lips and secretly felt her teeth with her tongue. Were any loose?
The old woman opened another notebook. ‘Hid that carefully to read out to my husband. But a few days after he came back from jail, when I said that I had written a story….’
The girl looked on eagerly. The old woman’s face had grown dim. In a hurry, she kept that book back and took another.
‘Hmm… it was a book like this. A blue lined book just like this one. I had written “om” at the top and started writing. At the top of the second story, I wrote ‘‘Sriramajayam”. When I was writing the second story, my husband was in Delhi… as M.P.’
She closed the book and kept it on the shelf. ‘I wanted so much to see Delhi. But he didn’t take me. The answer every time was “later — later.” Time passed. Once during the long vacation, he took mother and children to see Delhi. If I too were to go, who would look after the cows? Who would light the lamp at father’s asthithara?… these were mother’s questions. Anyway, I never could go.’
As if divulging a dangerous secret, the old woman leaned towards the girl. ‘That was when I wrote this second story….’ Now the girl became more interested in the old woman.
‘What was that about?’ she queried.
‘A woman writer… she writes stories under a male pseudonym and sends them to magazines. At last, one of her stories is awarded a prize and people come searching for her house. On knowing about that, her husband said… “oh, it was indeed a story that I wrote.” ’
The old lady laughed, showing her small false teeth. ‘What all desires…’
When she kept back the book and took another, the girl wished to learn the rest of the story. ‘What about the third story?’ she enquired. The old woman was about to take another book. At that instant, Padmakshi came through the doorway with vessels in hand.
‘Valiyamme… oh, have you begun studying for the exams again?’ Padmakshi asked loudly, in a mocking tone. ‘It is so long since you started studying. When is this going to end?’ Looking at the girl, she winked as if to a small child. Then she placed the vessels on the table. Kanji in a small vessel. A broad steel plate with rounded edges to pour it out and drink. Two pappads in another small plate. ‘valiyamme, don’t you want any food? Come take the kanji; take your medicine for the afternoon and sleep for a while…. I will swab your body as soon as you wake up.’
‘Don’t raise your voice, girl…’ the old woman chided gently. ‘I can hear, you know.’
‘Oh…so I am at fault.’ The thick muscles on Padmakshi’s face moved contemptuously. She turned to the girl. ‘Mol, why didn’t you go for the wedding?’ She spoke accusingly. ‘Didn’t Srimon persuade you a lot? Won’t everyone be eager to see the new bride?’ The girl did not reply. The old lady simply laughed.
The girl was interested in hearing the rest of the story. But the old lady was silent. She took the kanji Padmakshi poured for her. Then she walked to the washbasin. Removing her false teeth, she washed it and put it in a glass kept near the basin. Then, wiping her hands and face with the towel on the stand, she came walking slowly.
She took the glass of water and the tablet that Padmakshi had taken from the bottle on the table and was holding out to her. The girl could see the difficulty with which the tablet and water were going down the wrinkled throat. The tablet indulged in a fight with that thick violet vein. Then it gradually disappeared. The old lady gently lay down on the bed.
The girl’s curiosity to hear the rest of the story was increasing.
‘She had an old book. Has been searching for it ever since she lost her memory.’ Padmakshi said secretly.
‘She would climb up to the attic and go down to the cellar to search for it. Finally, fed up with this, Radhechi gave her some old books of Srimon and Minumol. That turned out to be a relief. She would spend her time turning them over.’ The girl could not help sighing. ‘You come along, mol! Now valiyamma will sleep. She’ll lie like this till five in the evening.’
When she collected the vessels and went out, the girl stood, not sure what to do.
‘The third story…’ she repeated unknowingly. The old lady forced open her drooping eyelids and with great difficulty determined the girl’s location in that room. Then smiling cruelly, said ‘Unnatural death.’ The girl could not comprehend. The old lady touched the violet vein on her neck, ‘When you tie the noose it should tighten here on this vein. Who knew that?’
The girl’s body trembled under the influence of an emotion akin to fear.
‘Don’t err on the vein…’ she reminded closing her eyes. ‘If you go wrong, you’ll lose your memory.’
The old woman did not say anything again. When Srijit returned late that night, the girl was standing before the mirror, inspecting her outstretched neck.
‘What are you looking for?’ he asked in the irritated tone of a lord who had not received due respect.
‘A vein.’ She replied agitatedly. ‘The vein of memory.’
Translated from Malayalam by Jaysree Ramakrishnan Nair
1. Vallathol Narayana Menon, a great Malayalam poet.
2. Saraswathy is the goddess of learning and music.
3. The original usage is ivitatteyaal which translates as ‘the one here’, referring to her husband. It was not habitual for women to call their husbands by name.
K.R.Meera is senior sub editor at Malayala Manorama, Kottayam. She is a journalist with feminist persuasions. The story translated here is taken from her short story collection, Ormmayude njarambu. This is a story which reveals K. R. Meera as an exceptional writer, dexterous in the use of symbolic language. The central character, an old lady emerges as a representative of the suppressed woman. When the creative urge is forced to be contained, it becomes the worst kind of punishment for a writer. In simple language cloaked in a subtle style, K. R. Meera tells the story of an old lady who becomes the mouthpiece for many. The violet vein is a beautiful and strong metaphor for memory. The old lady has supposedly lost her memory but the story unfolds a different picture. She is very much in possession of her memories. The slow and smooth identification of the old lady and the girl is skillfully done. The story owes its charm partly to the fact that a number of things are left unsaid and the unsaid make up the essence of the story.
The story has a profusion of culturally significant terms which defy translation. For instance, the old lady addressing her husband as ‘ivitatteyaal’ (the one here) marks the man’s position and importance in the household and the term ‘ivitatteyamma’ (the mother here) highlights the difference between the mother-in-law and one’s own mother. At the beginning of the story, the old woman addresses the girl as ‘kutti’ which is often used for young girls and boys. The term has a certain degree of formality and a little affection and this is difficult to be brought into the translation. I have used the word ‘dear’ which unfortunately can suggest only affection in the context.
JAYASREE RAMAKRISHNAN NAIR. Freelance writer and translator. Has published articles and translated many works. She is at present Senior Associate Editor, Samyukta.